Predicting the future . . . day by day

By Renee Bassett, InTech, Chief Editor

I am writing this on 24 March. By the time you are reading it in April or later, world events will have changed again in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, major U.S. airlines are drafting plans for a voluntary shutdown of all U.S. flights. A growing number of U.S. states and cities, and countries around the world, are urging lockdowns of “nonessential” businesses as cases of the virus top 43,000 in the U.S. and 381,000 globally. Everything from social interaction to industrial operations are being disrupted in unprecedented ways, and whatever is happening today is unlikely to be the same next week or next month.

Already, dozens of spring and summer events—everything from ISA’s annual Analysis Division Symposium to the Tokyo Summer Olympics—have been cancelled or postponed as congregating in groups larger than 10 (U.S.) or two (U.K.) has been banned. Tens of thousands of people are learning to work from home or learning what it means to not work at all for an indefinite period. Predictions about what this all means for industrial automation and control professionals vary widely.

Some automation providers are reporting that they are officially deemed “essential businesses,” because they support so many customers in the essential areas of food/beverage, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, oil/gas, and logistics. That means they have to continue to operate at regular levels to support those customers, even if/when a shelter-in-place order is issued. Others contend that the coronavirus outbreak reveals the weakest links in the industrial supply chain to be the suppliers’ suppliers, and managers should plan accordingly.

“Industry 4.0 has received much attention; however, the focus has been on the activities inside the factory gates. But investments in robotics or IoT sensors and the like assume that assembly lines receive a steady flow of raw materials,” explains Michael Larner, principal analyst at ABI Research. “Initially, plant managers and factory owners will be looking to secure supplies and be getting an appreciation of constraints further up the supply chain plus how much influence they have on their suppliers. In the longer term, manufacturers will need to conduct extensive due diligence to understand their risk exposure.”

To mitigate supply chain risks, Larner says, manufacturers should not only source components from multiple suppliers but also find suppliers in multiple locations.

Some predict that, in the long term, the coronavirus pandemic could be a boon to automation and digitalization efforts. “Before COVID-19 struck, industrial automation was slowed by flat capital expenditure and declining industrial production,” says David Bicknell, principal analyst with GlobalData. “The virus has exposed the fact that despite the hype, advanced factory automation has not substituted human workers at scale. Technologies such as blockchain for inventory management and logistics, and cloud-orchestrated AI [artificial intelligence] for assembly line robotics have either been insufficiently developed or too difficult to use.” Had industry implemented them sooner, “it would now be in a different place,” he adds.

Bicknell contends that, “the virus may now focus organizations’ minds on the need to automate faster in the medium term and will accelerate an investment in factory automation when the global economy eventually rebounds.” But, he admits, “that will take a while.”

What do you think? Talk to me about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting you, and how you predict it will affect industry. Reach me at rbassett@automation.com, rbassett@isa.org, or www.linkedIn.com/in/rrbassett.