The novel coronavirus, which causes the infectious and potentially fatal disease Covid-19, has transformed the world in a number of ways. Many of those will only become evident once the immediate outbreak has dwindled and the dust settles, but there’s one lesson that we can already see: the need to prepare for the unexpected.
Like nothing that came before
Although scientists have been warning for years that a global pandemic would emerge at some point, no one was prepared for the coronavirus, especially not the business world. There have been many catastrophes, disasters, and public health crises across the last hundred or so years, but never an incident like the coronavirus that affected the entire world almost in the same instant.
Wars, even those we term World Wars, tend to affect one country or region. Previous diseases and pandemics spread far more slowly. Many people have compared Covid-19 with the Spanish flu of 1918, but Spanish flu spread across the world over a period of months, rather than weeks. As a result, while the Spanish flu outbreak probably had a much higher fatality rate than Covid-19 (recent research estimated that close to 100 million people died, pointing to a global mortality rate of 10%, far higher than had been previously thought and way beyond Covid-19’s estimated fatality rate of between 1.6% and 2.3%), it didn’t stop the world in the same way as corona.
No one expected to witness the scenes we’re seeing today. New York City, London, Paris, and Los Angeles are all effectively closed for business, with empty streets. Flights have all but ceased within Europe and between Europe and North America. Everybody has made the switch to work from home, and even roles that people previously thought couldn’t be filled remotely have been forced to adapt to a work-from-home situation.
If there’s one takeaway we need to learn from corona, it’s that we can’t assume that what works today and worked well in the past will continue to work forever. We need to open our minds to doing things differently.
There’s no such thing as standing still
Companies in every sector are still reacting to Covid-19, but one trend is already emerging:
businesses that have undergone a digital transformation are faring better than those which have not.
Digital transformation makes your company more flexible and better able to respond to the unexpected. It supports a more agile chain of command, greater possibilities for remote working, and destructured hierarchies that enable proactive teams. As a result, companies which implemented digital transformation in order to prepare for the unexpected, even though no one contemplated this scenario, are better prepared for this or any other crisis.
In ordinary times, it’s tempting to follow a principle of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Manufacturing industries in particular have a tendency to stick tenaciously to tried-and-tested ways of working, managing, and running plants. The recent wave of IoT and the 4th industrial revolution passed over many companies in the process industries, leaving them virtually unchanged apart from the addition of a few sensors here and there and perhaps a pilot or two.
This attitude is understandable, because digital transformations are unsettling and messy. The transformation process is often painful. It takes time before you begin to see value, so it’s common for employees and managers to resent the disruption of systems that have worked perfectly well up until now. People dislike finding that their roles have changed, processes are disrupted, and they need to master new tools, workflows, and responses.
However, as the coronavirus has revealed, the results are worthwhile. Consider the role of predictive analytics, an integral part of digital transformation. Predictive analytics relies on remote monitoring through sensors in every area of the plant, connected by a smart system that collects and analyzes the data these sensors generate.
During ordinary times, plants have a large team of employees present every day. If a piece of equipment unexpectedly fails, there’s a team present to fix it. It’s awkward, but it’s not a disaster. But when you’re running a plant with a skeleton staff because everyone else is at home in isolation, an unexpected failure can indeed be catastrophic. Last-minute fixes aren’t possible, because your fix-it team is off site and needs advance warning to come in to the plant and deal with the issue. You don’t want to be taken by surprise, which means implementing remote monitoring and predictive analytics that can give you that kind of advance notice.
It’s a similar story for control room errors. In regular times when there’s a full team in the plant, someone will walk past the control room, spot an error, and it will be fixed. But with a minimal team onsite there’s no one to pick up on the mistakes, so you need a different solution to monitor the situation.
How Samson’s digital transformation helps it survive corona
Our parent company, Samson, serves as a perfect example. If Corona had hit 3 or 4 years ago, Samson would probably have been in trouble. At that time, it was a successful manufacturing company producing valves across the world but with strong dependence from plants located in Germany, specifically from its Headquarter in Frankfurt with 2000 employees. Overall, there was basically no digital visibility into its supply chain and production. A global pandemic would have shuttered all the plants at once and brought production to a screeching halt.
However, over the past 3 to 4 years, Samson pursued a strict policy of digital transformation. Like every digital transformation, it wasn’t painless, but it’s been fully validated by Samson’s ability to weather the coronavirus storm. Today, production has hardly dropped. Samson uses plants located across the world, with remote visibility and the ability to control the production from afar. This enabled the plants to continue working while changing shifts and some other adjustments.
“If Covid-19 had hit even 3 years ago, it would have caused serious difficulties for Samson since our worldwide production sites were fully dependent on Frankfurt. We didn’t have digital solutions in place for distant communication & management or asset performance management. Now, in the midst of the crisis, most of our administrative employees are working from home, we installed a smart shift system with social distancing in the production, measure the performance of more than 100 machines in real-time worldwide and our business and production are continuing,” said Dr. Andreas Widl, CEO of Samson. “All the frustration and annoyance of the digital transformation we’ve been undergoing over the last 3 years was worthwhile.”
Preparation helps you bend instead of break
It’s impossible to predict the future, but it is possible to prepare for it through digital transformation. Digital transformation gives companies the flexibility and agility to bend rather than break before unexpected crises. Samson was fortunate enough to have more or less completed its digital transformation just before Covid-19 hit, enabling it to serve as a perfect example of the benefits of moving to a more proactive working method of industry 4.0.