How COVID-19 Accelerated Manufacturing into the 4IR

Over the last few years, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has begun to transform the manufacturing industry—with many organizations adopting advanced technology to enhance processes and streamline operations. The 4IR refers to the extreme progression of technologies such as cloud computing, data analytics, virtual and augmented reality, robotics, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. While some companies have met these evolvements with enthusiasm and vigor, others have taken their time to determine exactly where they should be investing, as well as deliberating the potential benefits and pitfalls of the new technology.

The recent pandemic has been a catalyst for immense change in the manufacturing industry, unexpectedly accelerating companies into the 4IR (whether they were ready or not). With quarantines pushing the world towards online platforms, companies had to quickly adapt to a heavily remote environment to ensure continuity and safety. In addition, many had to navigate never-before-seen supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, and demand shifts.

According to a study conducted by McKinsey & Company, for 50% of companies, the largest shift during the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing their use of technology in operations. These companies also stated that this change was the most likely to continue even after the pandemic and throughout their recovery. Businesses shifted their priority to building tools and technologies to support their operations in ways and at speeds that were previously unimaginable. Companies that have embraced this acceleration are positioned very well as we move beyond the pandemic and face tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities.

MCA Connect also conducted an extensive review of the manufacturing industry’s response to COVID-19 in their study, The Future of Manufacturing: Digital Acceleration. Diving into the most prominent trends exposed in this survey, we’ll detail how other manufacturing companies are embracing the 4IR to continue operations in this turbulent time, and the reasons you should be focusing more on the emerging 4IR technologies.

MCA Connect Emerging Trends: A Technology Revolution

Employee Health & Safety

30% of respondents said that the health and safety of their workers was the most important challenge faced during COVID-19. To address this, some companies have implemented:

  • Enhanced data collection and analytics to encourage social distancing. These tools can give managers an accurate view of what’s occurring in the plant without having to be physically present to oversee operations.
  • Social gathering platforms such as Zoom or Skype to facilitate online inspections and employee communication.
  • Cloud computing to ensure systems and data are stored and run offsite and can be accessed online for remote collaboration.

With various COVID-19 restrictions, these implementations became a necessity—and many companies were shocked by how quickly they were able to put these solutions in place. According to McKinsey & Company’s survey, respondents said they acted 20-25x faster than expected. And while responding to remote work changes, their companies moved 40x faster than they imagined possible. Prior to the pandemic, respondents said they would’ve taken over a year to execute the level of remote working that emerged. But on average during this time, it only took 11 days to implement a workable solution.

Supply Chain Management

40% of MCA Connect respondents are very confident or mostly confident in their supply chain resilience in the wake of COVID-19, and 48% have engaged second- or third-party suppliers to help prepare for future disruptions. Manufacturers are accentuating the need for supply chain diversity and investment in fourth industrial revolution technologies to pivot quickly in the event of another disruption.

  • Virtual supply chain management systems have allowed for enhanced transparency, coordination, and risk management.
  • These platforms also provide a more consolidated view of real-time information, giving valuable insight to predict and prepare for future incidents.

McKinsey & Company found that companies accelerated the digitization of their supply chains by 3 to 4 years, and their use of digital products in this area accelerated by 7 years.

Data Integration and Analytics

Now more than ever, data is king. 4IR technology is allowing companies to connect their data like never before, giving incredible insight into operations and market status. 50% of MCA Connect respondents cited unlocking and uniting data or real-time insights as their most important short-term goal. The pandemic forced companies to reevaluate their outdated data integration systems, and left many transitioning to:

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) schedules that provide tools to manage production, customer life cycles, and the supply chain.
  • Application programming interface (API) and data warehousing solutions to link all systems together and provide a holistic view of the organization. These allow for more accurate predictions and enhance ability to adapt.

48% of the most successful companies found in the McKinsey & Company survey stated that they had sufficient talent in cutting-edge digital analytics techniques that many other companies lacked.

Reducing Downtime

COVID-19 caused many organizations to halt business altogether. Because of this, 44% of MCA Connect respondents stated that reducing downtime was their paramount short-term priority. To address this, companies have implemented machine learning technology to automatically predict imminent threats, which allows the company to proactively respond and prevent downtime.

McKinsey & Company found that 67% of businesses who invested more than their peers in digital-related capital expenditures reported a very effective response to COVID-19. And at the organizations that experimented with new digital technologies during the crisis, executives were 50% more likely to report outsize revenue growth.

Maintaining Talent & Workforce

While the 4IR continues to charge full-steam ahead, the talent pool for people who can fill the roles associated is hard-pressed to keep up, and it’s estimated that 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled between now and 2028.

50% of MCA Connect survey respondents chose maintaining a qualified workforce as their most important goal in the short term, and 44% determined it was their most important long-term goal. There are many ways companies are prioritizing this challenge, such as:

  • Taking advantage of robotics process automation (RPA) to reduce the need for manual labor. This particular technology is projected to reach $73 billion in market value by 2025.
  • Applying remote training tools (such as augmented reality) to continue employee education without requiring in-person contact.

Respondents of the McKinsey & Company study that reported successful responses to the pandemic stated they employ a wide range of technology abilities that other companies don’t. They attributed much of their success during the pandemic to their ability to fill gaps in manufacturing technology talent during the crisis, use more advanced technologies, and embrace innovation more than their less-successful peers.

Where Are We Now?

The need for technology skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, driving many manufacturing companies into a new age of innovation and invention, and highlighting the major benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

According to MCA Connect:

  • 58% of companies are currently using automation & robotics for manufacturing, and 60% said they’re planning on using them in the next 5 years
  • 56% of companies are currently using enhanced data housing and management solutions
  • 44% are using IoT sensors

And these initiatives are just getting started. While only 16% of respondents are currently using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, 52% said that they’re planning on applying it in the next 5 years. And while only 20% are currently using predictive analytics, 38% expect to use it in the next 5 years.


Prior to the pandemic, the 4IR was steadily making its way across the manufacturing industry, with companies implementing smaller technologies and building their plans for advanced tech integration in the future. However, that all changed when COVID-19 disrupted operations, demand, supply chain, and customer needs. Companies should begin to assess how their peers are utilizing this revolution to ensure continuity, and evaluate their own technological initiatives to prepare for the future.