By Marie Wiese, Director of Engineering, OMCO SUMO
Jan 17, 2022
Everyone knows first-hand that impacts from Covid have blown out growth forecasts for online shopping and remote/hybrid working, jumping forward 5-10 years.
Many employers already had optional work from home policies, usually for 1 or 2 days per week, with the goal of improving office employee retention, productivity, and quality of life. But in 2020 and 2021 these companies had to scramble to find suppliers to implement permanent hybrid working models, in many cases for full time remote working. Without Covid, reaching this level of hybrid/remote working might have taken another decade or more.
Similarly, Covid impacts are also driving huge demand for equipment and services for manufacturing automation. Just like ecommerce and hybrid working, labor shortages and volatility have pushed forecasts for spending on manufacturing automation far beyond pre-Covid forecasts. Bearings are a key component of nearly all manufacturing automation solutions.
Automated assembly line overhead conveyor system
Many manufacturers are desperately looking for ways to improve processes and automate to deal with continuing labor shortages and uncertainty. Some are even buying entire factories primarily for the labor and production volume, since they can’t staff the plants they already have. But like other components, assemblies, and raw materials, the supply chain for manufacturing automation technologies, in particular robotic solutions, is broken with long lead times. It can be 12 months or more before solutions can be implemented.
As Director of Engineering at OMCO SUMO, much of my role is focused on working with international and domestic suppliers to qualify how they manufacture parts for our bearing and assembled chain products and managing the overall operations and sustainability of our supply chain. I also need to ensure that we are quoting the appropriate solution for our customers, and we know what our costs are. In previous roles I have supported customer engineering groups to define solutions and assist on a corporate or project level basis.
In manufacturing engineering, Covid and the resulting supply chain issues have really changed things. First there were no more site visits, which forced us to embrace technology. Not just ‘Teams calls’ but other technology. If we were granted access to a facility, it was important to spend as much time as we could there: take video, do 3D room scans – because you just didn’t know if you would be able to be back for a few weeks or more. Presence with the customer is nearly all virtual now, which makes it more difficult to get information. In the ‘good old days’ when you would visit the plant you would sign in, put on your PPE (personal protective equipment) and measure things for yourself. Now you may need the customer to get you that information in videos or drawings.
Then came the supply chain slowdown or breakdown. What is the root cause of these supply chain issues? People still are not sure. It is driven by labor issues, but a little nebulous. Initially people weren’t coming in to work because of concerns about Covid and personal health safety. Some people have kids to take care of at home, or sick family members to deal with. Others are not working because they can get unemployment benefits that are equal or be close enough to what they would make on the assembly line.
Once the supply chain was broken, there was a ripple effect upstream. We had some cushion initially in the supply chain that has now compacted and gone all the way to the top of the chain. For example, initially you couldn’t get finished goods-type products, but now its rippled into things like plastics. As a consumer, I can’t get the shampoo I want because there are no bottles or caps available because of lack of resin.
As a result, manufacturers have been forced to be leaner in their processes. It has cultivated creativity because other avenues are simply not available. Engineering teams are looking for different ways to solve problems. Engineers who used to be very focused on specific duties and responsibilities are now being asked to fill in and respond to new challenges. Often, you don’t have the luxury to take the time to dig into something and stick with it. Everything has been sped up, tasks for engineers are now very multifaceted. It used to be people had core disciplines, now they must be general and address problems that just didn’t use to be there. Like finding new materials, “what would be a good substitution?” You may be able to get certain raw materials in September but not November, so you are constantly researching substitutions for the products you are making. Folks are taking crash courses on materials and substitution.
I don’t think we can say in 6 months these supply and labor issues will be all over or behind us. It may get worse before it gets better. Lead time for something that was 32 weeks is now 52 weeks plus. Suppliers don’t want to take a risk and commit to certain dates. Labor shortages persist.
Finding and retaining labor is still one of the primary operational challenges. The workforce is unreliable right now, and you certainly cannot expect people in areas with repetitive stresses to work the same way they did pre-pandemic. For example, food manufacturing customers that are very stringent on Covid testing protocols are falling short of their financial goals because they can’t fulfill orders and get products on the shelves. It’s not uncommon to not have enough people show up to work. And it’s a system-wide impact; the people that aren’t showing up may be at different factories. So production planners must respond to the labor shortage across all geographies on short notice. It’s very difficult to plan for that.
The answer is to accelerate plans for manufacturing automation and repurpose people to other areas. Not just as a band-aid solution, but permanently. There is no reason not to automate from an engineering perspective, we have all the technology. It’s amazing what we can do from an automation perspective – and bearings are a big part of that. However, everyone in a facility that has always intuitively known they need to automate is now shocked at lead times for robots and told to “get in line.”
It may not be possible to get ahead of that curve right now. So, what can you do about your ability to make things in the meantime? There may not be one silver bullet solution, but at minimum engineering and business leadership need to have awareness of the need for permanent manufacturing automation solutions. Just like ecommerce and hybrid/remote working, it’s here to stay.
OMCO Sustainable Motion is a manufacturer and global OEM supplier focused on ESG and sustainable sourcing for bearings, engineered assemblies, and motion-related components across all industries requiring mechanical power transmission. Established in 1964, with our extensive experience and global supplier networks from over 50 years in business, we are deeply knowledgeable and passionate about helping customers achieve sustainable sourcing and ESG goals, focusing on both the integrity of product performance and the corresponding influence on human rights, the environment, and fair business practices. OMCO is the first and only provider of proprietary ESG ratings within the power transmission industry covering an extensive and expanding network of manufacturers throughout Asia that provide high-quality lower-cost products, and often sharing the same supply chain with well-known premium brands without the accompanying overhead. Our goal is to support our customers with transparent values-driven business practices that help achieve sustainability of the triple bottom line: people, profit, and planet.