Prior to the pandemic, manufacturing was already transitioning into an exciting new era. Now, extended restrictions on workplace contact are accelerating the industry’s long-awaited digital transformation.

Few industries have been as deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as manufacturing. Lockdowns and social distancing have not only disrupted physical production, but they’ve also thrown supply chains and customer plans into turmoil.

At our virtual Salesforce Live: Switzerland event, we analysed the impact of COVID-19 on the industry against its wider relationship to change. Through conversations with experts and customers, it was clear that while this is a moment of profound disruption, it’s also a chance for manufacturers to accelerate into an exciting future that was already emerging.

You can watch the session online, or enjoy some of the highlights and key takeaways below.


An industry at a crossroads: to go digital or not?

Before the pandemic, digital transformation was already a powerful force in manufacturing. On the factory floor, the introduction of new technologies like the Internet of Things, AI, edge computing, and robotics was starting to enable more efficient, intelligent, and automated production processes.

This connectivity was extended into distribution, supply chain management, and even into the customer environment, as sensor-laden products fed a new channel of rich activity data, illuminating the whole value chain. The blind spots, fragmented processes, and invisible relationships across the whole industry were being digitised, analysed, and optimised through the vast processing power of the cloud.

So at the start of 2020, manufacturers stood at a crossroads. They could opt to continue working in the traditional way: supplying standalone products to third parties who would then sell them to consumers. Or they could take a new path: taking advantage of AI, data, and connectivity to forge direct relationships with those same end-buyers — and find profitable new business models in the process.


COVID-19 as a catalyst for digital acceleration

For many manufacturers uncertain of the way forward, COVID-19 made the decision for them. As we explored at our event, the need for enhanced safety and reduced human contact is accelerating the digitisation of the shop floor: not just with automation and robotics, but also new collaboration tools to facilitate communications between the business and front-line workers.

Digital solutions have quickly revolutionised the world of field service, too. Companies unable to dispatch engineers to customers’ premises are making innovative use of augmented reality for remote service, as Jürgen Brixel, EMEA senior director for manufacturing industry strategy at Salesforce, explains.

We’ve seen service technicians use live-streamed mobile AR overlays to help customers diagnose issues, order replacement parts, and even take corrective action on incredibly complex machinery.”

Jürgen Brixel

Jürgen believes it heralds a new kind of role: highly specialised service engineers working entirely remotely – perhaps even from home.

Mikron, a manufacturer of machining tools, cites another innovative use of technology prompted by the pandemic. Previously, the company would send sales engineers to a customer site post-sale, to conduct a customer acceptance test: an onsite verification that the product is correctly installed and working as expected.

Now, social distancing has forced Mikron to take that meeting virtually, claims Jean-François Bauer, the company’s head of marketing and business development. 

We’ve introduced a remote process for customer acceptance. We found that by using video, smart forms, and cameras, it’s possible to do it virtually. That will change the way we work going forward.”

Jean-François Bauer

Technology is enabling new types of customer relationship

Manufacturers have had to find innovative ways to work with their end-customers because customer relationships are becoming ever more critical to success.

The days of selling a product and forgetting about it are gone — to stay relevant and profitable, manufacturers must remain close to customers, understanding their changing needs and helping them to achieve their goals. In return, they stand to gain lifelong loyalty and deep insights to feed into future product innovation.

Technology is making that easier in myriad ways. Data streams from connected products enable new service-based models that deliver added value for customers. Predictive maintenance services mean increased uptime for customers, for example, while leasing models reduce the cost and risk of capital investment.

And manufacturers can use technology to get closer to customers in other ways, too. One way is simply by making better use of the information that sales and service people collect during conversations with customers.

When our people are on-site with the customer, they’re not talking to the boss of the boss of the boss. They’re talking to the people who are using the machines. And then you get the real feedback on how it's working.”

Jean-François Bauer

When that information is made accessible in one place, it not only means the company can have consistent and informed conversations with customers. It also provides insights that can drive future innovation, and can form the basis of personalised sales and marketing campaigns, too.


An opportunity for manufacturing to catch up with other industries

The move to greater customer-centricity is a necessary one for manufacturers, says Jürgen Brixel, noting that “for a long time, our industry has lagged behind the fast, frictionless, all-digital customer journeys that have become the norm elsewhere.”

He believes COVID-19 has sharpened manufacturers’ focus on customer relationships, especially as customers have looked to their suppliers for help and guidance through this incredibly volatile period. 

The most successful manufacturers of tomorrow won’t just be the ones who make the best products. They’ll be the ones who are the easiest to transact with, too.”

Jürgen Brixel

Watch the whole Manufacturing session online

For more insights into how manufacturing is embracing change — including our industry experts battling to identify the sector’s key imperatives and top search terms — watch online now.