Tech Trends 2022: Living with the Pandemic
Published on : Saturday 01-01-2022
How enterprises negotiate the disruption caused by the pandemic by adopting advanced technologies.
As the Covid pandemic enters the third year, the industry is in a much better position to keep the production lines moving thanks to all the enabling technologies available today. As has often been pointed out, it is not the paucity of options but the lack of clarity in implementation that is responsible for much of the failures experienced in the digital transformation journey. The editors of Deloitte’s 13th annual ‘Tech Trends’ report released recently have rightly noted in their introductory note, “Digital disruptors don't win because they're small. They win because their lean statures allow them to be decisive, agile and resilient.” Thinking bigger requires they act smaller, is how they put it.
To get an idea on how the industry fared in 2021 after widespread disruption of 2020, we asked the respondents in what manner did their enterprise increase deployment of technology in their processes.
“2021 was a year of adapting and adjusting to the new normal. It has been a year of transition and there is no going back to the pre-Covid era. Future generations will divide the 20th century into pre-Covid and post-Covid,” G Ganapathiraman, Vice President & General Manager, ARC Advisory Group – India, and an avid industry watcher. “We saw acceleration in the use of technology, digitalisation, and new business structures. The crisis has made it imperative for companies to reconfigure and transform their operations to enhance productivity. The buzzword is resilience and it has been prioritised in the supply chain and throughout production operations. Many companies moved faster than previously planned on building supply chain redundancies, improving data security, and increasing the use of advanced technologies in operations,” he adds.
“The year 2021 infused a fresh life in the industrial sector. Getting acclimated to the ‘new normal’ took some time but the sector now seems to be back on track with stronger confidence and self-belief. The last couple of years has brought the importance of strong leadership and technology to the centre stage,” concurs Senthil Kumar V, Head of Industrial Automation, Schneider Electric India. “Automation is going to be a crucial component for India’s economic development and firms have started investing in it. MSMEs must count on automation to acquire a competitive edge. In the last few years, we have witnessed MSMEs responding well to the needs of automation and digitisation,” he states.
Sunil Mehta, General Manager, e-F@ctory Strategic Planning, Factory Automation & Industrial Division, Mitsubishi Electric India Private Limited, is also of the view that overall, the industry did well in 2021 after the initial impact of Covid-19 that was started from March 2020. The initial few months were a bit tough but gradually the manufacturing industry got acquainted with the situation. Different solutions were developed, so that production on the shop floor continues with necessary resources while following all the safety measures led down by authorities. But there are other problems that continue to plague the industry. “Last financial year many of the industries performed bare minimum and tried to survive with reduced overheads. Manufacturing industry did perform well in 2021 and was coming back to usual, but another problem arose which is the shortage of semiconductor products. Semiconductor shortage affected automotive industries and Factory automation product suppliers as the lead time came out to be very long,” he elaborates.
Technologies making significant impact
There are other aspects to be considered. Which technology made the most significant impact on business? Which aspect of business was impacted? How visible was this impact to the customers?
“It is not a surprise that the industry adopted digital practices to deal with the prevailing circumstances. May it be for discussions with online meeting platforms, placing a bigger focus on digital marketing, to adopting smart digital technologies like Augmented Reality and IIoT for product design and manufacturing operational efficiency,” says Atul Marwaha, Executive Vice President, DesignTech Systems Pvt Ltd. An engineer by qualification, Atul has spent time on all aspects of manufacturing including shop-floor, design, toolroom and has worked with numerous suppliers. Based on his present role, Atul believes the product engineering industry has widely adopted cloud solutions for managing their product development processes that gives flexibility of access from different locations. Right from scanning the menus at restaurants, ordering groceries and medicines, to managing product development processes and manufacturing, individuals, businesses, and industries are largely adopting digital solutions to conduct operations. “In these paradigm shifting circumstances, digitalisation has become imperative,” he opines.
Harish G Kashyap, Principal Oil & Gas Consultant & Digital Transformation Enthusiast, is of the view that with the unforeseen nature of events caused by the Covid-19, those digital technologies which, in the pre-Covid times, were believed to take a couple of years to be adopted, have taken a quantum leap and are surely here to stay for the long haul. Passionate about thought leadership of emerging technologies and their convergence with the traditional business domains including IT & OT convergence, Harish says businesses shifted their focus toward an omnichannel presence and are leaving no stone unturned for the same. “The traditional supply chain model has been transformed into digital supply networks enabling end-to-end visibility, agility, collaboration and enhanced optimisation. This should ready them for any unforeseen ‘black-swan’ event like the pandemic or any similar threats in the future,” he emphasises.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has forced companies to shift to running their operations remotely, with many employees working from locations outside of the plant, such as their homes. This requires a connected workforce with the right cyber-secure tools to provide real-time visibility and control and meet the challenges of fully remote access of operations,” says Hemal Desai, VP Marketing, Endress+Hauser India. According to Hemal, remote operations require appropriate enabling technology for a connected and remote workforce, facilitate collaboration and reduce paperwork, provide secured access to information from anyone, anywhere, and support interactions with remote experts. “Remote operation greatly benefits from technologies such as augmented reality (AR), where the remote user can see any asset in the plant with information digitally overlaid. AR devices sense what the remote worker is looking at and display the data needed for the operation at hand using tablets, smartphones, smart glasses, or wearable computers,” he says.
Supply chain disruption
While Covid triggered the supply chain disruption, it now continues in various forms and for different reasons. What could be the solution?
In the opinion of Ramji Singh, Vice President – Schmersal India Pvt Ltd, Covid-19 severely impacted supply chains. As a result, businesses need to evaluate how they can proactively prepare for any such disruptions in future. It calls for the companies to build a ‘smarter’ supply chain. “Businesses can leverage automation and other technologies to manage, foresee and limit the impact of supply chain disruptions. Organisations need to build capabilities and make their supply chains more agile. They need to create geographically diversified supply chains and collaborate with supply chain partners to develop a coordinated crisis-support system. Fortunately, the emerging supply chain technologies enable companies to improve their visibility across the end-to-end supply chain and enhance companies’ ability to resist disruptions and shock. Organisations should adopt a holistic approach to managing the supply chain and build sufficient flexibility to safeguard against future disruptions,” he explains.
“This is an unprecedented situation on a global level and its impacting makers’ ability to deliver to customers. Manufacturers worldwide are trying to take care of it by adopting measures like increasing the production capacity, redesigning products so as to move away from hard-to-find components, renegotiating with suppliers to increase allocated production volume, etc. However it might take some more time for us to see more improvements,” says Swaminathan Vangal Ramamurthy, General Manager, OMRON Automation Centre/Robotics, OMRON Asia Pacific Pte Ltd, Singapore.
Remote work practices
While the concept of Work From Home (WFH) is not new with many companies having a flexible approach for certain types of work, the Covid pandemic certainly brought it to the forefront for large sections of the workforce. What was practiced in certain businesses and more as a niche became mainstream and widely adopted. It would be interesting to understand how by adopting WFH, and remote work practices, whether companies discovered any possibilities to improve workflow? Or are there any hidden inefficiencies?
“The WFH culture is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Although many people are returning to the workplace as economies reopen, executives have indicated in surveys that hybrid models – where some employees go to the office and others continue working from home – are going to be the norm,” says G Ganapathiraman. However, the potential for WFH, according to him, depends on the mix of activities undertaken in each occupation and on their physical, spatial, and interpersonal context. This depends on whether an employee needs to be physically present on-site to do a task, interact with others, or use location-specific machinery or equipment. “Several top companies including Nestle, Coca-Cola, Dabur, Godrej Consumer, etc., have allowed their employees to choose whether to return to offices or continue working from home for the next couple of months. With new strains of the virus raising its ugly head, companies are unwilling to risk employee health and safety,” he states.
For Senthil Kumar V, employee safety and wellbeing are important factors driving growth, stability and business continuity. “At Schneider Electric, we believe that it is critical to achieve convergence between the workforce and the workplace of the future, especially in these challenging times. We have had a ‘Flexible Working Arrangement’ approach for the past five years to help our employees strike the right work-life balance. Thus, shifting to work-from-home overnight was a seamless ride for us. We also conducted an internal survey which found that 83% of our employees want more flexibility. This further motivated us to introduce a permanent hybrid model across the company. This policy reflects our pursuit to create a working environment that can enhance the productivity and wellbeing of our employees. Things are less likely to go back to the way it was anytime soon. We believe hybrid working will be the new norm in the workplace of the future and organisations need to adapt their business models accordingly,” he explains.
Mitsubishi India’s Sunil Mehta too shares the view there could be a possibility that in the near future we may have to face new strains of the virus and Work from Home culture might continue to stay. “There could be a possibility that Hybrid culture could be adopted, and people might attend the office for critical meetings. In case of manufacturing facilities adoption on automation level will further increase. Workers might need to come down to their workplaces depending upon the order status and availability of raw materials. Many of the IT industries are still adopting WFH and have adjusted to this work culture well. IT companies have provided necessary tools to employees working from home and this new culture has become stable as of now,” he says.
Improving competitive advantage
How do you propose to improve your competitive advantage in the year ahead, particularly by using automation? Joining the debate at this point, Jhankar Dutta, Managing Director, B&R Industrial Automation, is of the opinion that the biggest challenge manufacturers are facing is the rise in the cost of raw materials, energy and transportation, which is generating constant pressure on profitability enhancement and making the business sustainable. Manufacturers continuously look to invest in automation solutions that help them increase their productivity and efficiency. “Industrial automation solutions enhance production, improve reliability and quality by integrating innovative technologies, and also optimise costs associated with the production process, thus improving return on investment (RoI). Automation takes the mechanisation of machines one step further by replacing manual work with computer programing and automation devices, thus achieving the machine's superior performance,” he emphasises.
How is the outlook for 2022, given that a lot of lessons have been learned during the last two years? “2022 looks promising. While the virus is mutating and new variants are still spreading, it is reducing in intensity. We all still need to carry on with our lives with care and caution, but now at work we can expect to see more stability, continuity, and a steady pace of progress. The world has adapted to the new normal, and it will function within these new parameters,” says Atul Marwaha.
Harish G Kashyap, invokes Plato who is widely credited as the one who coined the phrase, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’. “Having learnt the lessons right from the pandemic and through building resilience for the next crisis, businesses have an opportunity to turn the Covid-19 disruption to their advantage. The pandemic sparked an innovation wave and launched an entirely new generation of entrepreneurs. From AI enabled autonomous vehicles to crypto currencies to personalised experience in numerous products to improved digital and omnichannel business models – innovation is at the core of the new startups. The future is what we make and it surely looks like for the year 2022 and beyond, companies are working towards enhanced business models based on the SWOT analysis of their earlier business operation models,” he asserts.
“In the wake of last year’s Covid-19 shutdowns, information technology groups pivoted nearly overnight, launching technology-driven initiatives to enable remote work and distance learning. New customer experiences and new online sales channels followed close behind. Digitalisation and online platforms create additional access to the market and customers,” says Hemal Desai. According to him, the digital world will not replace the physical sales environment, however. People always need people. The terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘warmth’ are incredibly important. “Knowledge can be digitally transported, but warmth requires closeness. When the media says home working is the future, that’s wrong. Employees miss interacting with other people when they work from home,” he adds.
“Business leaders across sectors believe a return to normal in 2022 is misguided. They think volatility will remain the main challenge for businesses as new strains of Coronavirus emerge. To deal with volatility, we need to create simplicity in our business. We need to simplify everything within our control to let people deal with volatility. Labour has become a significant concern in many industries. I believe hiring and retaining workers is only going to intensify in 2022,” says Ramji Singh.
Swaminathan Vangal Ramamurthy, firmly believes the upcoming era or next few years are all going to be more about ‘autonomy’ rather than more ‘automation’. There is going to be a remarkable shift from the basic smart manufacturing concepts of machine centricity, IoT device connectivity to ‘connecting abilities’ empowered with the novel concept of ‘Internet of Abilities’ (IoA) based on human centricity. “The last few years have manifested many notable things that the manufacturing world is undergoing. With the concept of glocalisation replacing globalisation, mass customisation is getting side-tracked with personalised manufacturing mandates. With climate changes and an unprecedented situation like Covid in tow, consumption orientation is getting replaced with sustenance orientation. Also post pandemic, the makers are now pondering over social needs, more than ever, rather than only industry and production-based needs. All this, in turn, is demanding the data efficiency driven systems to do more and fetch more sustainable results by transitioning to knowledge driven systems,” he elaborates.
So what are the technology trends most likely to dominate in 2022? “In this era of enormous possibilities, new and advanced technologies will indeed have domination in the manufacturing sector. Trending technologies like Smart Manufacturing, Integrated automation solutions, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), secure remote maintenance, and digital twins will boost the morale of the manufacturing industry. These technologies will create a better and advanced production environment for the machine manufacturers and the end-users,” says Jhankar Dutta, who believes the manufacturing sector will benefit from the continuous adoption of advanced technologies in higher production, better performance, and superior quality. “Many might fear the implications of these developments on job opportunities. Still, I firmly believe the industry has so much to gain from advanced automation technologies, in fact, they will increase the number of manufacturing jobs available. Ultimately, it provides a win-win scenario, and I look forward to seeing what happens in 2022,” he adds.
“In my opinion, 2022 will be all about Industrial 5G. 5G holds the promise of freeing connectivity from the limitations of wired infrastructure, enabling disruptive new applications. 5G’s low latency, high data rates, and massive capacity will accelerate adoption of Industrial IoT edge capabilities in areas, such as AI/ML, AR/VR, edge computing, and mobility to enable truly autonomous robotics, logistics, and other manufacturing operations,” says G Ganapathiraman.
According to Senthil Kumar V, in 2022, we will continue to see accelerated adoption of digitisation and technologies across sectors, including manufacturing. Technologies such as Cloud and Edge computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, 5G, robotics, predictive analytics, etc., will still be a part of our business operations. “However, the coming years will see a level-up in these technologies as the focus will shift from surviving in an agile environment to thriving in it. The trends for 2022 will focus on the convergence of previously existing technology trends and will be a subset of what we’ve seen over the years,” he opines.
Sunil Mehta draws attention to the e-F@ctory concept introduced by Mitsubishi Electric way back in the year 2003 in Japan and which they are now promoting in India for various industry verticals. “Our e-F@ctory is an integral concept to build a reliable and flexible manufacturing system offering high speed information transmission over robust and high-speed industrial CC-Link IE Network. Already implemented at worldwide customers in various fields such as automobiles, pharmaceuticals, solar battery, secondary battery, precision equipment, semiconductors, food, metal processing, etc., we have developed e-F@ctory Alliance Partners to offer various digitisation solutions for different industry verticals with domain knowledge and integration expertise,” he adds.
“Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality and Virtual Reality technologies are definitely making an impact and difference as an enhanced approach of communication and content dissemination. Product development companies are adopting Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality experiences for product design review and information sharing, training, machine commissioning, servicing, and also for Marketing,” says Atul Marwaha, who explains how with only a tablet or smartphone, companies can access the digital content with enhanced and immersive experience to communicate and share the information. “We at DesignTech, have set-up a dedicated function/department to provide Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality Services. We have scaled up our capabilities to develop impressive, engaging, and greatly detailed experiences for even the most complex machines and systems. The overseas companies are increasingly exploring and availing these services,” he explains.
To Harish G Kashyap, whether it’s a crude oil refinery or a renewable fuel plant or a manufacturing industry or your favourite restaurant, every company that you have ever known is now a technology company. With core business at their epicentre, organisations are transforming on the periphery as technology companies. Massive investments in digital strategies, transformational solutions drive the next wave of innovation. Few tech trends that might dominate in 2022, according to him, are: Digital twins, Blockchain and Bots. Other dominating trends include 5G, AI & cognitive transformation, robotics, IoT, Predictive analytics, Hybrid cloud, Augmented analytics, etc., to name a few, he says.
“The combinatorial power of technology fuels the trends, in which robotics, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), digital twins, and 3D or 4D printing (also known as additive manufacturing, or AM) combine to streamline routine tasks, improve operational efficiency, and accelerate time to market,” says Hemal Desai. How fast are these technologies moving? “Annual installations of industrial robots, which have increased two times to about 450,000 since 2015, will grow to about 600,000 by 2022, even as 70 per cent of manufacturers will be regularly using digital twins by 2022. Across industries, about 10 per cent of today’s manufacturing processes will be replaced by AM by 2030,” he adds.
“There have been drastic changes in the previous two years in how we perceive work to how we communicate. The adoption of digital technology has accelerated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, operations are being streamlined using connected technologies and automation. In 2022, I see artificial intelligence, Internet of Things gaining momentum. These two technologies will redefine the future of automation. 5G will lay the foundation for an intelligent and connected environment. The bottom line is technology will shape the businesses of tomorrow,” concludes Ramji Singh.