Navigating disruption in manufacturing

Mar 23, 2024 | IT in Manufacturing

Over the years, I’ve written several articles on IT in manufacturing. Reflecting on these as we start 2024, I realise that most revolve around applying technology to real-world challenges in plants and mines.

Many of the disruptive forces have affected all countries, but others are local in nature. Challenges such as COVID-19, the shift towards renewable energy, geopolitical conflict, skills shortages, digital transformation, and cybersecurity are global in nature and all highly disruptive.

In South Africa however, an additional layer of disruption strikes daily at the heart of manufacturing operations (and society at large). The ongoing rolling blackouts pose a threat to many companies, compounded by the continuous erosion of critical infrastructure like rail, water, ports and roads. The supply of natural gas to manufacturing centres is also about to run out in just two short years, and this situation might persist for years unless new import infrastructure is built and new local gas sources are brought online.

Many local mining and manufacturing businesses now find themselves almost ‘flying blind’, uncertain of the immediate future and unable to clearly discern the medium-term, three- to five-year horizon.

In this context, a manufacturing plant or mine in South Africa must operate under a new set of priorities. It is here that manufacturing IT must rise to the challenge, remaining an important enabler of digital resilience, and ultimately manufacturing resilience.

So, where to begin? The reliability of power and logistics, particularly relevant to South African operations, might be a good example.

Power disruptions can be mitigated in several ways. One approach is simply negotiating an assured power supply from the distributor, based on the strategic significance of the factory or mine to the ‘national interest’. However, this approach may not always be successful. Another strategy might be to reduce dependence on the grid by installing alternative energy generators. This could involve installing new capacity renewables (solar and wind), or perhaps by recycling of additional waste products into energy (for example, incineration with co-generation of power). These new capital projects will require IT support across all areas, from engineering and design to procurement, construction, commissioning and operations.

The short-term impact of a blackout could also be lessened by modifying the process itself. Every plant has a bottleneck, usually where the most capital is invested. Surrounding this, many parts of the process can usually be temporarily switched off without constraining the main production. Storage can be increased (with due apologies to Eli Goldratt, the author of ‘Essays on the Theory of Constraints’). Water heaters, cooling systems, waste and effluent treatment, and similar utilities often have built-in redundancy and surplus capacity, allowing them to be temporarily switched off to then catch up once power is restored. These secondary unit operations can act as energy ‘batteries’, in a manner of speaking. Identifying critical process operations and operating these in new ways to survive an extended blackout will require innovative process engineering. The resulting new operating protocols will likely require a reconfiguration of the control, automation and electrical systems. These changes will also affect everything related to measuring production performance. Dashboards and key performance indicators (KPIs) will need to be updated to account for the new configuration and operating procedures. Here, IT will play a crucial role in ensuring that the right data is available and accurately represented.

In addition to process modifications, logistics also play a crucial role in helping companies be more resilient to disruption. The erosion of infrastructure in South Africa has made the transportation of raw materials and finished goods increasingly challenging. Aside from simply ramping up inventory with an associated increase in working capital, IT can help optimise logistics by exploring advanced planning and scheduling systems, with more use of real-time data to make informed decisions. This could result in more agile rerouting of transportation based on current conditions, or adjusting production schedules to align with transportation availability.

Furthermore, the use of predictive analytics can help anticipate potential disruptions, and formulate contingency plans. Machine learning algorithms can analyse historical and real-time data to predict future trends and disruptions, allowing businesses to proactively adjust their operational strategies. In South Africa, the rolling blackouts have lasted for 14 years already; enough useful historical data should be available to more accuratel predict the impact of electricity failure on operations.

Aside from power and logistics challenges, there are other underlying risks to consider, such as new skills shortages. These shortages may arise from experienced personnel retiring, together with a lack of in-house training programmes to upskill newly recruited technicians or graduates. Regardless of the cause, the end result is the same: production and manufacturing resilience suffer.

IT can play a role in many ways to address the skills issue. For instance, it can connect junior technicians at the worksite with experienced professionals, using remote communication technologies. Using visual aids, a camera and suitable industrial mobile devices or wearables, an experienced engineer can guide a more junior counterpart through problem solving, whether in the office or on the plant or mine. Collaboration technologies have received a tremendous boost from the demands of remote working during COVID-19, and most companies have started to exploit new communication technology to mitigate the risk of skills shortages. Five short years ago, relying on a remote expert to troubleshoot a process plant as seen from the perspective of a technician on the plant wearing a camera might have raised eyebrows, but not now.

It’s also worth mentioning the emerging risks faced by the IT function itself. While the challenges in IT are not physical, like railways and ports, they still exist, and could pose a very real threat to business. Skills come to mind, and these are not just technical or programming skills. IT professionals need to become very adaptable, willing to research, understand and rapidly apply emerging technologies. Otherwise, business users will simply do it for themselves in their silos, leaving a complex mess of ad hoc applications, databases, spreadsheets and other documents that are in no way integrated or managed.

Moreover, in the IT space cybersecurity has emerged as a critical risk, now amplified by the prospect of AI tools that will make cyberattacks even more difficult to handle, damaging to people, companies, and society at large. The use of AI to counter AI cyberattacks is a reality that is believed to be imminent.

In this environment, fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptation is vital. The pace of change is accelerating, and businesses must be prepared to pivot quickly in response to new challenges and opportunities. IT can support this by providing platforms for collaboration and knowledge sharing, and also tools for training and skill development.

In conclusion, the role of IT in manufacturing is more critical than ever in these turbulent times. By focusing on resilience and adaptability, IT can help businesses navigate the disruptions and emerge stronger on the other side. The journey may be challenging, but with the right approach, mindset and tools, it is one that South African manufacturing plants and mines are equipped to undertake.

This article first appeared in SA Instrumentation and Control, March 2024.

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