#28 – Inside Our Industry – What We Learned About Manufacturing in 2020

Posted on | Inside Our Industry

In trying to find the best way to wrap up 2020 (and who’s not ready for that!), we came across this Forbes article (in part) that did just that. As we move into 2021 and past this pandemic, hopefully sooner rather than later, the lessons learned in 2020 are here to stay.

What We Learned About Manufacturing In 2020
Natan Linder, Contributor, Dec 17, 2020

Believe it or not, this time warp of a year is coming to an end. All of a sudden it’s that time again when we reflect on what we learned. If there’s ever been a year that merited reflection, it’s this one.

Still, a year as tumultuous as this one is hard to generalize about. What have we actually learned about manufacturing?

To help me answer this question, I asked the folks who’ve lived these changes every day what they learned in 2020…some patterns quickly emerged.

Here are the biggest lessons we learned about manufacturing in 2020.

  1. People – There are two competing narratives about human work in manufacturing during and after COVID. On the one hand, there’s a real anxiety that firms are going to fast-track their automation programs, leaving workers out of the job. On the other, there’s the story that I heard from a number of manufacturers: No people, no production.We learned not to underestimate our people,” said Jennifer Davis of Arch Systems. “We just witnessed the most unlikely employees effectively adopting technological tools. Most of all, we learned to see people as people – at every level of our companies.”In short, we learned that manufacturing will only be as successful as it’s people.
  2. Collaboration – Collaboration and partnership can be good strategy. So the massive collaborations we saw this year were a difference in degree, not kind. And it was a huge difference.Girish Wabel, a Senior Manager of Strategic Capabilities at Jabil, captured the distinctive nature of these collaborations when he noted, “You saw manufacturing giants take on projects completely out of business plans but not unlike their character, for example PPE and ventilators. It showed the power of great collaboration and what can be achieved or the devastation it can cause when people don’t selflessly collaborate.”If the next year’s challenges are anywhere near as trying as this year’s, we’d do well to remember what can happen when we work together.
  3. Distributed manufacturing – This trend is probably best understood as an extension of collaboration, but it deserves it’s own point.To date, manufacturing has been site specific. It’s done at theplant, or as part of a carefully planned and integrated supply chain. This year showed us there are other ways.When shutdowns and supply chain interruptions halted production, manufacturers looked for capacity anywhere they could find it. What emerged were distributed manufacturing networks, where individuals in spatially distant geographic areas worked collaboratively on the same projects.
  4. Agility – If nothing else, 2020 was a great year for buzzwords.“Unprecedented,” “new normal,” “difficult times”.Which is why I worry that one of the main lessons of 2020, the need for agility, runs the risk of winding up buried beneath a pile of meaningless buzzwords. Organizations learned that rigidity is risk, and that being able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances is a competitive advantage.We learned that change is the status quo. We are not just weathering a storm, gritting our teeth until the “new normal” arrives. Rather, we accept change as a constant and build adaptability into our organizations and operations.
  5. Acceleration – As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it, the world experienced two years of digital transformation in two months.This pace is set to continue. In a recent survey, 58% of operations leaders reported that accelerating digital transformation was a top priority. But this acceleration brings new challenges, and it isn’t just about tech. Navigating the quickening landscape requires equal attention to the cultural and technological dimensions of transformation.
  6. Remote work – Remote work has been one of the big stories of the pandemic. And if you asked the industry a year ago, I’m positive few would have believed that manufacturing could support remote work.Nevertheless, manufacturing has adapted to a remote world.

For 2021? Focus on work

When I look back at the items in this review, it’s clear that there’s a single through-line: work.

We’d to do well to keep thinking about the future of work, but 2020 showed us that we need to look closely at how manufacturers are working now.

2020 augured fundamental changes in how manufacturers work, where they work, and working methodologies. And these changes aren’t going to slow any time soon.

So here’s to taking what we learned this year and keeping the conversation going into the next.

Natan Linder is the co-founder and CEO of Tulip, and co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Formlabs. His work aims to fuse design and engineering to create novel human experiences.


We sincerely hope that each of you have stayed safe throughout the year and that you have a wonderful holiday season. Also we thank you for your past support and look forward to coming to your inbox in 2021. Merry Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year to you all. We’ll see you January 5, 2021!