Komgrit Pradissagul/Dreamstime
Artist's rendition of automation in manufacturing

Manufacturing’s Revolution Responds to Challenges

Oct. 19, 2021
A Cisco exec notes that growth has continued despite supply chain and COVID issues.

This is a good time to reflect on the journey many manufacturers have been on since the pandemic began and where the journey has yet to take them. For most, it’s meant a smaller workforce, an increase in automated processes, more connected devices and a rise in cyberthreats.

As manufacturers take what they learned from the pandemic and look to the future, here are a few considerations to keep in mind.

Embracing Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0, or the fourth Industrial Revolution, is a term that’s been talked about for nearly a decade, with some skepticism as to whether we really were in the middle of a revolution.

The COVID-19 pandemic confirmed it.

All manufacturers are in different places in their digital maturity, but those who are digitally native, successfully bridging the gap between the cyber and physical worlds, fared better during the pandemic.

Data from IMD World Competitiveness Center shows a K-shaped recovery, where digitally savvy companies have recovered significantly quicker than other organizations since the economic downturn in March of 2020.

This is because they already had the basic infrastructure in place to maintain production levels and better manage the reduction in workforce. In a word, technology made them more resilient.

Embracing this industrial revolution, moving to automated supply chains and factory floors, and securing critical data are just a few steps manufacturers can take to be successful on the other side of the pandemic.

Automating and Diversifying the Supply Chain

One example of the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on manufacturing is visible by just walking past any car dealership. Some only have a handful of new cars on the lot for sale. This is the result of a chain reaction brought on by the pandemic: a lack of silicon led to slower production of computer chips, which in turn led to less new cars.

To put it simply, the supply chain is a mess right now. Silicon impacting the manufacturing of cars is just one example of many where the pandemic tested manufacturers’ resiliency.

To combat this, manufacturers found they had to diversify their supply chain. Some only sourced from individual suppliers for cost reasons, but as that supply dried up, they had to look elsewhere. Others looked at how data analytics could help them predict supply chain shortages moving forward.

Manufacturers also found the need to look at the internal supply chain. Less workers on the factory floor means more machines doing that work. That also means an increased chance of maintenance needs. Adopting artificial intelligence to identify preventative maintenance needs allows manufacturers to make sure they have the right materials onsite for repairs, avoiding costly downtime.

Automating the Factory Floor

One of the defining features of the pandemic was virtual work. Across all industries, employees were sent home. But what happens in an industry that relies on its workers on the factory floor to produced finished goods and products? As factory floor workers were sent home, the manufacturers had to do more with less. That meant automating processes to maintain production levels.

Nissan is just one example of a manufacturer running with this concept. The company recently implemented the “Nissan Intelligent Factory,” a next-generation automobile manufacturing concept, at its Tochigi plant in Japan.

Manufacturers should identify where they are in their digital maturity, and what steps they still need to take before they successfully leverage and deploy the best practices of both OT and IT.

The plant utilizes a high-speed, secure IoT network that can streamline operations to support the e-powertrain production line for electric vehicles. It also uses a next-generation identity and access control platform at the network edge, making it possible to manage and control network access for employees offsite, production lines and equipment. This creates a secure and highly functional IoT network that can obtain information from the manufacturing equipment terminals that make up the production line.

This re-engineered network also helped Nissan successfully navigate the pandemic. After shutting down plants and restricting movements between plants and offices, Nissan was able to leverage the access control platform to know who was connected to the network, at all times, maintaining a secure communication channel with teammates domestic and abroad.


October also marks National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and manufacturing almost always finds itself near the top of the list for the most attacked industries. A recent report from the FBI showed a 69% increase in cybercrime complaints in 2020 over 2019. That alone is concerning, but also of note was the fact that hackers had unauthorized access to networks for an average of 56 days before they were found.

This highlights the need for all industries, including manufacturers, to have full visibility over their network. If the network is a highway, then administrators need a road map, showing all of the on and off ramps. If a data enters or leaves the network in a way other than it was supposed to, they need to know.

With that visibility, administrators can identify potential breaches, corrupted data or malware, then isolate and remove the threat.

Next Steps

Embracing the factory of the future and Industry 4.0 is a leap that many manufacturers still need to take. It is not one that they can, or should, take alone. Manufacturers should identify where they are in their digital maturity, and what steps they still need to take before they successfully leverage and deploy the best practices of both OT and IT. To do this, they can partner with IoT providers who can help guide them through the process and identify potential vulnerabilities in their network.

Carlos A. Rojas is worldwide industry lead for manufacturing solutions at Cisco.

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