When the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic made life complicated for Eaton Corporation plc’s Vehicle Group, the company leveraged Industry 4.0 technology to wade through it all.
Eaton, whose Vehicle Group is headquartered in Galesburg east of Kalamazoo, provides automotive and commercial vehicle manufacturers around the globe with products and systems.
As a corporation that generated $21.4 billion in revenue last year, employs 95,000 employees and sells products to clients spread throughout 174 different countries, Eaton (NYSE: ETN) faced plenty of hurdles. However, its Vehicle Group also had advanced resources to work with.
“I think certain elements (of Industry 4.0) during a COVID situation are going to help more than others,” said Alexandre Georgetti, director of manufacturing strategy for Eaton’s Vehicle Group. “For example, when you think about augmented reality, that’s one of the things we’re leveraging a lot. That was really a big contributor during this COVID-19 situation because it allowed us to connect with our team faster and in a more safe way.”
With the aid of Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 augmented reality goggles, Eaton team members could project 3-D images in a physical space so that technical work could be conducted remotely. The company also used augmented reality to train operators and engineers on new equipment without instructors having to travel from facility to facility.
And that was just part of Eaton’s space-aged operations. The company also uses digital simulation to improve production efficiency in addition to autonomous robots — autonomous automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or autonomous mobile robots — and cobots that handle both complex and repetitive tasks.
While these measures encouraged efficiency and employee safety through social distancing, they were not specifically developed and implemented because of the pandemic. Rather, they are part of a robust Industry 4.0 infrastructure already put in place by the auto supplier, which is run from Beachwood, Ohio and headquartered in Dublin, Ireland. The pandemic did, however, change Eaton’s Industry 4.0 strategy in the short term.
“(COVID-19) made us expand (our strategy) in a couple of different areas,” Georgetti said. “For example, our work on AR, we had a plan that was to cascade it to all of our global sites at a certain pace. Because the pandemic came, we sped up that plan to make sure that all the sites would have the hardware and software so we could leverage that straight away globally.”
Georgetti said the Vehicle Group continues to evolve on the Industry 4.0 front, tweaking its strategy as it goes along to meet the evolving challenges of the industry.
“We hold weekly calls with our global teams because if a best practice is identified in one of our regions, we share that so the other sites can also leverage that everywhere,” he said.
Many of the technologies involved in Industry 4.0 — everything from additive manufacturing (3-D printing) and simulation to the cloud and autonomous robots — are proving beneficial in navigating the rigors of an unprecedented health pandemic.
Some manufacturers are looking to make a sharp pivot to manufacture PPE, PPE components or other products made available from reshoring work from low-cost countries. Others are trying to facilitate remote workforces and socially distanced in-person workforces.
Manufacturers that are already invested in Industry 4.0 technology certainly found a leg up throughout the process so far.
“I think what you’re seeing is some of them that have set themselves up on 4.0 already are at an advantage at this point,” said Ryan Lillibridge, director of business development at Holland-based Mission Design & Automation LLC, which works with manufacturers to concept, design, build and integrate custom automation cells.
“They’re able to run their factories a little bit easier if they already have 4.0 ideas, that connectedness in place,” he said. “I think other ones are probably seeing they’re probably behind on that.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated some innovations, manufacturers also have been forced to innovate quickly, especially if they want to capture business opportunities associated with it.
In situations where manufacturers are looking to try something new, the team at Mission Design & Automation strives to serve as a partner to move the process along quickly.
“Short-term strategy can be very reactive,” said Scot Lindemann, who took over as CEO of Mission Design & Automation in January and has worked with clients to adapt to their automation needs.
“The ability to pivot quickly and listen to your customer is keeping you on the forefront of being their supplier of choice for automation,” said Lindemann, who also previously led Holland-based JR Automation. “The relationships you have with those end users and with the customers allows you to follow them as they’re pivoting back and forth, because quite honestly, their long-term plans are up in the air and everything is a short-term, reactionary plan right now.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic stress tested the existing Industry 4.0 strategies of some manufacturers, it served as a bit of a reckoning for the many companies who have yet to give much thought to it.
The disruption in how manufacturers do business during the pandemic provided an opportunity to step back and truly assess operations.
Tom Kelly, executive director of Automation Alley in Troy, which is a World Economic Forum Advanced Manufacturing Hub and Industry 4.0 knowledge center, said that the primary barrier standing in the way of a manufacturer and Industry 4.0 technology is culture, and quite frankly, stubbornness.
The trials of the COVID-19 pandemic may have served as an epiphany for these businesses.
“The silver lining in this pandemic is that the culture has been blown up completely,” Kelly said. “The pandemic required us to think differently. They’re saying ‘Hey, I can’t work side-by-side, I have to figure out what I need to do differently.’ They all figured it out and these processes are still being figured out on the fly. But they’re getting it.
“The silver lining of COVID is that it’s accelerating 20 years of culture change in six months. It’s crazy to watch.”
Justine Burdette, regional director for the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West office in Grand Rapids, highlighted that another silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic was that some manufacturers are unlocking the capital needed to start investing in Industry 4.0 technology.
“I just heard recently from a couple other folks that some manufacturers are using their newly found travel dollars to actually push them into innovation projects, including automation that they just kind of had sitting on the shelf. It’s like ‘OK, when we get the capital for a project, we’ll pick one off the shelf, and decide what we want to do,’” Burdette said.
“And now, because people aren’t traveling as much, they’re like, ‘Hmm, OK, here’s some space and some dollars in our budget that we didn’t have before.’ I think people are making some lemonade out of lemons.”
This found money, paired with the fact that technology providers and automaters are also struggling for business during the pandemic, makes for a great time to buy, Burdette added.
“If you’re a manufacturer who was well capitalized and you had prepared for a rainy day, the rainy day is here,” she said. “If your business is at a stable point where you can actually capitalize on some of these opportunities, now is a great time to buy a robot — most of them are on sale. Or, now is a great time to add some automation to your shop floor.
“Most automation implementers are slower and have super short lead times. If you wanted to put something in small, test it and then put it in elsewhere, now would be the time to do that because it can be done relatively quickly.”