The One Strategy Every Manufacturer Should Consider Right Now


The past year has been one of the most challenging we’ve ever seen in the manufacturing sector, particularly with the unique convergence of several major trends and issues that are making it harder and tougher to meet production goals and meet customer demand.

Whether it’s been dealing with plant shutdowns, disruptions, and labor shortages due to COVID-19, or struggling to keep up with surging product demand despite shortages of materials and components as well as disruptions to the supply chain, manufacturers are having to adapt to unprecedented difficulties.

But every time we’re faced with a prolonged period of historic challenges and changes, it’s always important to keep in mind that it’s also a major business opportunity.

In every economic disruption, downturn, or upheaval, there are winners and losers, and the winners seize on the chance to be smart, to innovate and change the way they do things, and come out ahead by turning a series of negatives into positives and competitive advantages.

For example, during the 2009 Great Recession, 10% of companies saw their earnings climb steadily, and 9% of them not only recovered during the three years afterward, but they outperformed their competitors by at least 10% in sales growth and profit.

What allowed them to make these gains while so many other companies were losing or fighting to recover?

According to Bain & Company, which conducted one of the studies of these downturn winners, there were a number of factors, including being better prepared, exercising financial discipline, and making good decisions. But one of the biggest factors was technology.

By deploying new technologies that helped them improve efficiency, cut costs, and increase agility at a time when other companies were struggling, the recession winners figured out ways to move faster, simplify business processes, and make positive changes as well as continuous improvements.

As Bain partners, Tom Holland and Jeff Katzin put it, “winners can deploy new technologies coupled with cost management tools such as supply chain reinvention, complexity reduction, and zero-based budgeting to change the game.”

McKinsey senior partner Katy George also endorses technology as a key tool in adapting to fast-changing circumstances and market conditions. “Technologies create much more flexibility around product changes, volume changes, as well as the movement of your supply chain,” she says.

In manufacturing, there are many ways we can use technology to create this kind of flexibility while also boosting productivity, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. In every area of plant floor and warehouse operations, there are ways to automate and optimize workflows and tasks, minimize labor requirements and costs, and create a more efficient and accurate supply chain.

For example, while most manufacturers use barcoding and/or mobile computing technologies in the warehouse to manage and track their inventory, relatively few have taken the opportunity to invest in multi-modal voice-directed mobile technologies that allow them to take their order and material picking to an entirely new level.

As an example, using voice-directed picking software running on a wrist-worn mobile computer, combined with a finger-worn ring barcode scanner and a headset, warehouse workers can pick orders and material far more efficiently, with voice and/or visual commands that cue each pick, direct them along the most efficient routes to the correct warehouse location, and then verify the correct picks with a barcode scan, all while keeping their hands free to handle inventory.

Similarly, in production operations, Zebra has launched new fixed industrial scanners and machine vision cameras that automatically track and trace components, assemblies, and finished products as they move through production processes. These devices help count, sort and route them along the right pathways, and they can check products for defects, inconsistencies, contaminants, labeling and packaging problems, or an array of other potential quality issues.

In the receiving area and for assembly lines and line-side replenishment, we’ve helped many of our manufacturing clients automate and error-proof their inbound receiving and processing, using Zebra’s RFID, barcode scanning, and mobile computing solutions.

With automated data capture and mobile workflows at key process stages like these, workers and managers can be alerted when new materials or components arrive, when incorrect materials or components are stages, or when items need to be replenished to keep production processes moving.

For example, in the receiving area, RFID and barcoding solutions can be used to quickly and accurately identify and process materials when they arrive and help automate the put-away process with intelligent and precise routing to the correct locations.

In assembly, Zebra fixed industrial scanners can scan and verify that the correct parts are loaded on a conveyor and automatically sort and route them according to the correct destination line and process. At key stages in the production process, RFID tags can be used to remotely verify that the correct parts or components have been brought and staged for a given process, and automated exception alerts can be triggered when the wrong item is detected.

These are just a few examples of the many ways that manufacturers can use technologies to boost automation, efficiency, and accuracy at a time when we need to figure out how to do more with less and how to meet changing demands and supply chain realities. By making smart investments and deploying scalable technologies that can automate more of what we do and take more of the manual labor and potential human error out of the process, we can cut time and cost while also freeing us up to retrain and redeploy our workforce in areas where they’re needed most.

Most importantly, we can get out of a purely reactive mode and into a more proactive approach that helps us turn a tough time and tough circumstances into an opportunity to actually make gains and come out a winner.

If that’s something you’d like to do in your manufacturing operations, then now is a good time to be thinking about technology. And it’s a good time to reach out to a technology provider to explore your needs in detail, identify opportunities to leverage technology to your advantage, and figure out the best strategies you should consider.

To learn more and get started, reach out to our manufacturing technology experts at SK&T, and we’d be happy to help.