COVID-19 accelerates digital transformation

Industrial organizations are realizing digital transformation value during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes rapid production changes, enterprise-wide connectivity, and a shift from proof of concept to proof of value for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) implementations.

By Sean Callahan August 4, 2020


Learning Objectives

  • Digital transformation and Industrial Internet of Things tools help industrial connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Two goals of digitalization are enabling remote work and remote service.
  • Industrial connectivity tools can connect existing assets without replacing machines.

How is COVID-19 affecting digital transformation? Control Engineering had questions for software connectivity company PTC about how the COVID-19 pandemic was changing digital transformation. Sean Callahan, senior director, strategic marketing for Kepware, part of PTC, provided answers about digital transformation value, enterprise-wide connectivity and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) proof of value.

Question: How has COVID-19 impacted marketplaces, industries, and/or supply chains?

Callahan: COVID-19 has been a catalyst for companies accelerating their digital transformation journeys. Industrial organizations have now seen firsthand the value that digital transformation brings when dealing with crisis situations, or when they need to rapidly make shifts in production, and are responding accordingly.

Many organizations that did not undertake major digital transformation efforts ahead of the pandemic were more negatively impacted as a result. We have found that they are now evaluating and making plans to quickly implement transformative technologies in the future such as the industrial IoT and augmented reality (AR). Demand for these technologies, as well as critical foundational technologies like enterprise-wide connectivity, continues to grow as organizations evaluate how they’ll position themselves to thrive post-crisis.

Q: How will COVID-19 shape markets with technologies and systems; people and training; and processes and quality control?

Callahan: The most tangible example of COVID-19 disrupting products, processes, and people is with training and digital work instructions. Facing rapid changes in demand, new social distancing measures, and the rise of remote work, industrial organizations needed new approaches to onboarding, training, upskilling, and reskilling that worked within the new normal they were facing. To maintain business continuity and help their employees navigate these challenges, manufactures are now leveraging AR to capture and transfer knowledge – to employees, to customers, and even to other manufacturers.

For example, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of technology companies formed the VentilatorChallengeUK Consortium. Led by High Value Manufacturing Catapult CEO Dick Elsy, the Consortium rose to the “call-to-action” by the British government for manufacturers and technology companies to collaborate to increase the quantity of ventilators needed in the treatment of COVID-19.

Manufacturing and technology companies like PTC, GKN Aerospace, McLaren, Ford Motor Co., Meggit and Siemens UK began to collaborate with British ventilator manufacturers Penlon and Smiths Group. They shared a common goal – to work at unprecedented pace to move ventilator production from 50 to 60 units per week to 1,500 a week in a month’s time in order to fulfill the U.K. government’s order for 20,000.

Leveraging PTC’s Vuforia Expert Capture AR technology and Microsoft’s HoloLens to capture and transfer the necessary process knowledge from the ventilator manufacturers enabled manufacturers in other industries to quickly switch their lines to help produce the high number of ventilators needed.

Q: With global economics, what changes do you foresee in the upcoming 1 to 3 years to recover from this pandemic and better prepare for next potential pandemic or crisis?

Callahan: As a direct result of the pandemic, we are seeing companies create short-term and long-term plans to help them weather the crisis and better prepare for future uncertainty. These crisis response plans prioritize employee safety while also focusing on improving overall productivity, securing alternate material supplies and alternative production options, and embracing rapid retooling efforts that would enable more flexibility to produce products not in the company’s immediate supply chain.

To help industrial organizations navigate the crisis short-term, PTC offered its remote assistance software free of charge, enabling manufacturing and service organizations to keep employees both connected and safe during the pandemic. In the short-term, programs like these helped companies maintain business continuity while enabling them to free up liquidity for other immediate needs.

From a more long-term perspective, we are finding that conversations around overall efficiency and cost saving measures are dominating the planning landscape as companies look to ensure ongoing business continuity. Carrying over from their short-term plans focused on maintaining free cash flow, many companies are scaling back on overhead to ensure liquidity in the case of future crises.

While reducing cost remains top-of-mind, many organizations are investing heavily in a joint IoT and AR strategy to drive digital transformation initiatives and ensure that they will be properly suited to weather a crisis should another one arise. For many industrial organizations, their most important strategic moves are focused on enabling remote work and remote service.

Organizations with complex machinery that requires in-person maintenance anticipate that similar facility shutdowns and border closures in the future will impact their ability to service customers – something that a major automation manufacturer experienced in this pandemic. Leveraging software tools the company enabled its internal expert to walk service representatives in the field through complex maintenance procedures, thereby ensuring the ability to keep its service team members safe throughout a pandemic in a manner that is easiest for the customer without sacrificing product quality.

Q: Covering teamwork and collaboration, how will engineering teams evolve in the coming months, using communications and productivity tools to drive efficiencies?

Callahan: As organizations look to gain efficiencies, we are seeing teams from OT and IT [operational technology and information technology groups] work together more strategically, driving industrial IoT initiatives together to realize tangible business outcomes for both groups. We are also seeing a shift from a focus on “proof of concept” implementations to a focus on “proof of value.” Proof of concept implementations were typically deployed in an area of the shop floor that was less risky to test new technology on – but the problem was that with these low-risk, low-priority pilots, companies could not see the value that would be realized by scaling these to more impactful areas of the business. By shifting to a proof of value implementation, they are targeting the areas of the business where they can realize the largest impact and value. To do this successfully, they are looking for solutions they can get running quickly without disrupting the manufacturing process in the critical areas targeted for these high-value pilots. Industrial connectivity tools provide the ability to connect existing assets without replacing machines, enabling industrial organizations to demonstrate real proof of value without disrupting production on their most critical lines.

Q: How will engineers in manufacturing help economic growth return?

Callahan: We are seeing that manufacturing engineers are using this time to research, design, implement, and empower digital transformation strategies in their organizations. We are also seeing their organizations, in turn, make commitments with global systems integrators and consultants to ensure they lock up the best resources for enabling digital transformation as soon as the economy reopens. In supporting the broader digital transformation economy, as well as strengthening their own businesses, manufacturers are leading the way to helping us return to a period of economic growth.

As we learn to embrace the new normal, manufacturers will be uniquely poised to educate other industries about how to jump-start their own recovery efforts – sparking broader discussions about employee safety, workforce productivity, and overall efficiency gains resulting from investment at this critical juncture.

Sean Callahan is senior director, strategic marketing for Kepware. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


KEYWORDS: COVID-19, digital transformation, IIoT


If COVID-19 isn’t accelerating your digital transformation, what about your competitors?

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COVID-19 and engineering responses

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Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Sean Callahan is senior director strategic marketing, Kepware, PTC.