The review found that most studies report gross domestic product (GDP), trade volumes, and manufacturing outputs to encapsulate the tremendous external shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to the global economy. The GDP, worldwide, was on a collective decline, particularly in early 2020; the US (↓1.22%), Japan (↓0.85%), the UK (↓1.98%), Germany (↓2.22%), China (↓10.2%) and France (↓5.83%) were all demonstrating a downward trend (Cai & Luo, 2020; Gu et al., 2020; Luo et al., 2020). Several studies (Napoleone & Prataviera, 2020; Payne et al., 2021; Rapaccini et al., 2020) reveal that March 2020 was problematic for Italian manufacturing firms in comparison to other European countries. Italy’s industrial production decreased by 28.4%, and its stock exchange was on a high–low decline of 42%, adversely impacting Italian GDP (Rapaccini et al., 2020). Interestingly, some other figures for overall trade volumes are rather consistent, or even on a slight rise, for China and some parts of Northern Europe like Estonia; but foreign trade for Finland dropped by nearly 30% (Hilmola et al., 2020).
Around April 2020, the UK economy was preparing for recession, given its high reliance on manufacturing. Early figures suggest 70% of UK manufacturing firms reported loss of sales, only 11.7% firms operated at full capacity and 25% announced plans to make employees redundant, with the manufacturing output falling by 24.3%, recording the largest monthly decline since 1968 (Harris et al., 2020). Just a month later in May 2020, new figures show 41% of UK SMEs had to halt operations, out of which 35% feared permanent closure (Juergensen et al., 2020). Updated statistics are also available for the US and Taiwan; the second quarter of 2020 reports a sharp fall in US manufacturing production by 20.2%, followed by a GDP decline of 31.4% (Moutray, 2020), and Taiwan’s manufacturing report an 11% decrease in production value with an estimated 5.05% annual drop (Teng et al., 2021).
We also found research (Juergensen et al., 2020; Kim & Lee, 2021; Payne et al., 2021; Sahoo & Ashwani, 2020; Surianarayanan & Menkhoff, 2020) focused on COVID-19 complexities in the manufacturing SME context. About 70% SMEs in Italy and Europe, and 50% SMEs in Germany, report revenue losses due to COVID-19 (Juergensen et al., 2020). The figures captured in this section are mostly for the first and second quarters of 2020, and this is because most of the studies reviewed here were published in 2020. Out of the 56 publications included in this study, only 13 were published in the year 2021, with the remaining 43 published in 2020. Table 1 shows peer-reviewed journals and conferences with at least two publications of relevance to this review. Articles were also included from several other highly reputed journals (one article each), such as the Harvard Business Review, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Journal of Business Research, R&D Management, and many more.
Next, a detailed examination of the contents of all the shortlisted articles was undertaken. The insights from these studies were categorized based on frequently occurring keywords (such as, digital) including synonyms and phrases (such as, Internet of Things), and the research aim (such as, impact of digital technologies on manufacturing) to reflect on their relative importance. This allowed us to categorise articles by topic (Table 2), and this revealed that most studies focus on the role of digital technologies, including a focus on additive manufacturing and the issue of supply chain resilience.
Next, we focused on theories used by the shortlisted studies to explore the impact of COVID-19 in manufacturing (see Table 3). Most of these studies focus on investigating different aspects of supply chains. For instance, the social capital theory is used to study the relationship between digitalization, social capital, and supply chain performance (Kim & Lee, 2021). Additionally, with the pandemic presenting challenges around timely deployment of resilient assets, studies like Belhadi et al. (2021) and Ivanov (2021a, 2021b) employ the supply chain resilience theory to evaluate supply chain strategies. There is also evidence of the theory of constructal law being used to understand the makeup of supply chains and management-level decisions in the context of pandemic-related events (Handfield et al., 2020).
Another theory used to explain manufacturing firms’ decisions to adopt sustainable and resilient strategies in challenging contexts is the resource-based view (Obradovi et al.,2021). Resourcing theory, on the other hand, is used to explain the relationship between policymakers and collaborative innovation (Elsahn & Siedlok, 2021). We also noticed studies adopting a range of theories to study financial aspects; for instance, free cash flow theory is used to demonstrate the impact of financial flexibility on firm performance (Teng et al., 2021). There was also evidence of location theory being used to explain the importance of optimal firm location in terms of lowering costs of raw materials, labour, and freight (Luo et al., 2020). Another theory, which focuses on aspects of low cost and high quality, especially in volatile markets such as those induced by the pandemic, is the leagile (lean and agile) theory (Khoo & Hock, 2020).
There are further calls for research (surveys and case studies) to develop theories focused on strategies for supply chains and firm recovery in dire times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic (Paul & Chowdhury, 2020a). In their road to recovery from the pandemic, many firms are exploring the inclusion of digital technologies as a part of their strategy. There is a need for further theory development aimed at theorizing the interplay between organizational strategies and digital technologies (Priyono et al., 2020).
Challenges in manufacturing emerging from COVID-19 complexities
Pre-existing challenges in manufacturing: better or worse since the pandemic?
Here, we discuss some of the challenges that manufacturers have struggled with since before the pandemic. Interestingly, while most of these challenges have intensified with the pandemic, one has been rectified to a certain extent. Firstly, there is the persistent problem of the skills gap and difficulties in recruiting a new generation of workers in manufacturing; most firms have an ageing manufacturing workforce (Harris et al., 2020; Moutray, 2020; Wuest et al., 2020). Although on the one hand, the pandemic has strained the labour market, making it difficult for manufacturers to find and retain a quality workforce; on the other, there are also new opportunities arising to train/upskill unemployed workers from the hard-hit service industries to make up for the current workforce shortage (Moutray, 2020).
Secondly, there is the challenge of finances required for incorporating digital technologies (Cai & Luo, 2020) that are now deemed critical for maintaining productivity and other downstream activities, such as marketing and sales (Juergensen et al., 2020). With COVID-19, investments in disruptive technologies have augmented; more manufacturers are incorporating digitized operations, but there are persistent worries around the return on investments (Surianarayanan & Menkhoff, 2020). Some studies report that digital struggles are much severe in an SME context, as preparing SMEs for I4.0 is extremely challenging when most of them (in the UK, at least) are still using I2.0 (Harris et al., 2020). The challenge of financial constraints is a longstanding concern, particularly for standalone manufacturing SMEs (Juergensen et al., 2020); these have only worsened with the pandemic, as SME budgets have become tighter and external financial support is not readily available.
Thirdly, financial burdens go beyond investments in digital technologies, because now there is an immediate need for a digitally-skilled workforce; this means manufacturers have to invest more in training (Huang, 2020; Kamarthi & Li, 2020). The industry has already recorded investment figures of around $26.2 billion in 2019 on training employees in new technologies (Moutray, 2020), and these are now expected to rise further. In addition to training, firms also have to devise incentives to keep the workforce engaged and interested in acquiring the necessary digital skills (Moutray, 2020).
Lastly, there are challenges created by the US–China trade war. The trade war in 2019 resulted in soaring global trade tensions, which have only multiplied with the pandemic (Cai & Luo, 2020; Okorie et al., 2020). Many manufacturers pulled out of China before the pandemic, but continued to rely on it for some intermediate goods (Handfield et al., 2020), and now, with the pandemic, trust between China and western nations is on a path of swift decline (Cai & Luo, 2020). The subsequent logistical issues concerning the import of manufacturing goods, combined with the challenges of reshoring, protectionism, and financial constraints in developing nations have only worsened (Cai & Luo, 2020).
Challenges related to lockdowns
The recent rise in fragmented economic activity, combined with the decline of vertically integrated firms have led to the rise of global supply/value chains (Juergensen et al., 2020). Most original equipment manufacturers and their tier 1 suppliers rely on international production bases and global supply chains (Handfield et al., 2020). Global markets have long remained the key to success for many of these manufacturers (Moutray, 2020); but national lockdowns cause logistical disruptions across borders and interrupt production networks and work, both upstream and downstream of the industrial chains (Cai & Luo, 2020; Tareq et al., 2021). The production nodes are underperforming and the logistic links are broken, making it clear that manufacturing is now fully exposed to supply shocks (Gu et al., 2020; Monostori & Váncza, 2020). Intensifying the complications is the unknown recovery timeline of these supply chains from COVID-19 shocks, which is, in turn, threatening the viability of international economic activities and interconnections (Cai & Luo, 2020; Kim & Lee, 2021; Pinna & Lodi, 2021; Terry et al., 2020) that are crucial for a stable global economy.
The industry is facing disruptions from the internalities and externalities of market turbulence, and the logistical uncertainty of product movements by land, air and sea (Khoo & Hock, 2020) is resulting in reduced capacity utilization (Juergensen et al., 2020). This is stunting key activities, such as the procurement of raw materials, and the import/export of key components. The restricted movement of goods, services and the workforce has, in instances, halted production altogether (Kamarthi & Li, 2020; Lu et al., 2021). Adding to these supply issues are problems such as flight cancellations, also resulting in rising costs for airfreight and haulage, and longer waiting times due to restricted road transport and increased commodity checking (Cai & Luo, 2020).
The most affected manufacturers are those that are heavily reliant on global supply chains, international labour and export-intensive operations (Harris et al., 2020). Matters are worse for manufacturers that have not diversified their suppliers (Hilmola et al., 2020; Linton & Vakil, 2020) and for those that rely on foreign low-cost suppliers to avoid expensive regional ones (Handfield et al., 2020). While relying on single and/or foreign suppliers may keep costs and other targets in check, the strategy backfires in crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic (Juergensen et al., 2020). Also impacted are those manufacturers that only account for their direct supplier, without monitoring the status of their lower-tier suppliers (Linton & Vakil, 2020). Supply-side shocks, thus, become inevitable, resulting in unsolicited economic commotion in the demand-side, also reflected in reduced disposable income and savings (Sahoo & Ashwani, 2020).
Another unique challenge of shutdowns/lockdowns is the fate of finished products, including food items with limited shelf lives, which are unable to reach the markets due to logistical disruptions (Diaz-Elsayed et al., 2020); these are generating piles of waste with nowhere to go, and the absence of recycling programmes for unused products is not helping the situation. Some studies including Harris et al. (2020) and Juergensen et al. (2020) find that lockdowns have created many challenges for UK manufacturers and European SMEs, with the supply side suffering from logistical disruptions and labour shortages, and the demand side hit by declining demands owing to the lack of customer confidence in the sustainability and performance of numerous global supply chains. Many manufacturing companies are buried under financial pressures, such as those in China; worse perhaps, many firms are suffering product delivery and supply chain pressures (Lu et al., 2021). Overall, raw material shortages and supply chain fractures during lockdowns have intensified the challenges of low rework rates, high operating costs and constricted cash flow, which are accumulatively obstructing full-scale production (Lu et al., 2021).
Challenges related to essential products and medical equipment shortages
The manufacturing industry was under tremendous pressure to meet the sudden increase in demand for critical medical equipment and associated paraphernalia, such as ventilators, surgical masks, gloves, testing swabs, face shields, sanitizers, respirators, oxygen valves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) (Advincula et al., 2020; Bragazzi, 2020; Diaz-Elsayed et al., 2020; Hoosain et al., 2020; Liu et al., 2021a, 2021b; Napoleone & Prataviera, 2020; Patel & Gohil, 2020; Queiroz et al., 2020; Tareq et al., 2021; Wuest et al., 2020). The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that PPE production had to go up by 40% to meet the shortage in 2020 (Diaz-Elsayed et al., 2020). In addition to the medical supplies, manufacturers of specific non-substitutable essential items, such as hand sanitizers and toilet paper, also faced a massive surge in demand (Wuest et al., 2020).
It becomes clear from our review that the challenges that evolved thereafter are the first of their kind to hit the global manufacturing industry right at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. The supply chain failure meant limited raw material availability, which coupled with reduced production capacity prevented manufacturers from fulfilling any of the above-mentioned demands (Paul & Chowdhury, 2020a, 2020b). As the situation evolved, the bullwhip effect enveloped the manufacturing industry, causing disruptions and putting integrated supply chain operations in jeopardy, and the challenges of immediate product shortages, logistical bottlenecks, and even overproduction became prominent (Cai & Luo, 2020; Handfield et al., 2020). Visibility across supply chains is generally limited, which when combined with such a bullwhip effect, leads to panic and, in the case of COVID-19, has caused further problems of inventory excess and stockpiling (Diaz-Elsayed et al., 2020).
Furthermore, as the pandemic peaked and passed through different waves, governments publicly appealed to non-medical businesses and organisations to share their supply chain capabilities and manufacturing capacities to meet the critical life-saving equipment shortages (Advincula et al., 2020; Elsahn & Siedlok, 2021). Those that are able to repurpose, producing such equipment are challenged with aspects of adhering to—medical safety and sterility protocols, design qualifications and other testing procedures (Advincula et al., 2020). Additionally, those that have not been able to repurpose identify the challenges of gaining the skills required for repurposing, the high costs involved, and other time constraints (Okorie et al., 2020).
Challenges related to safety protocols
Unlike other industries, in response to governments’ stay at home orders during the pandemic, manufacturing companies have not been able to move operations fully online and engage in remote working. Not much can be done where access to the production line, machinery, or laboratories is a must, or where specialist equipment cannot be used in a work-from-home setting (Juergensen et al., 2020). As a result, many manufacturers have had to either operate at limited capacity or terminate operations (Cai & Luo, 2020; Hilmola et al., 2020).
In addition to the challenges of remote working, safety guidelines from governments’ warranting social distancing in physical facilities are adding to manufacturers’ problems. Despite being a hands-on, physical industry, the need to social distance now requires manufacturers to reengineer production processes, identify and enable remotely operated procedures where possible, reconfigure workplace models, and restructure workforce management. While these align with safety measures, there are outstanding risks of poor responsiveness and reduced outputs (Moutray, 2020). Moreover, adhering to government restrictions and implementing physical changes to make manufacturing plants safety compliant involves substantial financial investments, increasing monetary burdens for manufacturers (Juergensen et al., 2020). All these issues are snowballing into prominent challenges of workforce shortages and poor production rates that are negatively impacting economic stability, and complicating supply chain management in manufacturing (Ivanov, 2021b; Kim & Lee, 2021; Lu et al., 2021).
Challenges related to workforce shortage and occupational dissatisfaction
Manufacturing firms have had to do much more than readjust their physical spaces to make work COVID-compliant. In particular, to enable remote working, as discussed above, manufacturers are having to employ a variety of digital technologies to support operations. A direct implication is related to workforce perception, where, specifically, low skilled or less educated workers begin to fear the possibility of being replaced by digital technologies. This perception may evolve into constant stress in the workforce and dissatisfaction in manufacturing as a career choice (Ren et al., 2020). Workforce shortages have been a prevalent issue in manufacturing, but are now becoming even more prominent, as there are shortages of people with traditional foundational skills combined with timely digital skills (Wuest et al., 2020).
In the race to employ people skilled in digital technologies, manufacturers cannot afford to lose those proficient in manufacturing skills. In a parallel vein, one study (Sahoo & Ashwani, 2020) explains the issue of the reverse migration of skilled manufacturing workers, which is having a negative impact on such a labour-intensive industry. Their study highlights how the manufacturing industry in India relies on migrant workers who acquire specific skills over the years. However, reduced operations due to COVID-19 has led to many workers moving back home to rural parts. Estimations from the International Labour Organization suggest disruptions in manufacturing have put almost half of the workforce worldwide at the risk of losing livelihoods (Koch et al., 2021). Concerns over losing their jobs (even as a possibility) is motivating them to look for other work. The current lack of stability in manufacturing is, therefore, creating dissatisfaction in workers, who are, then, less likely to return to work after lockdowns or temporary layoffs, causing skill shortages and further falls in industrial productivity (Sahoo & Ashwani, 2020). Moreover, the younger generation of men and women are finding it difficult to see manufacturing as a lucrative career opportunity. This further increases the risk of reduced numbers of skilled workers going forward. Some researchers (Harris et al., 2020) are of the view that the lack of substantial training programmes, internships, attractive salaries and other incentive-based frameworks is the reason for the loss and shortage of skilled labour.
Management interventions for tackling COVID-19 challenges in manufacturing
Localizing and regionalizing production, value networks and supply chains
The localization and regionalization of supply chains are expected to be the new norm for manufacturing in the post-COVID period (Cai & Luo, 2020; Handfield et al., 2020). Some manufacturers are also exploring the possibility of adding new suppliers in multiple locations (duplication) to better manage supply chains (Moutray, 2020). Many studies are unanimously of the opinion that COVID-19 has both demonstrated and validated the importance and impact of localized manufacturing (Advincula et al., 2020; Tareq et al., 2021). For instance, its positive impact becomes evident in how countries managed medical equipment shortages by relying on domestic manufacturers to lead the production of supplies (Elsahn & Siedlok, 2021). More manufacturers are now seeking new suppliers and buyers within their home country (Lu et al., 2021) and are exploring the opportunities of localized production, i.e., reshoring (Harris et al., 2020; Moutray, 2020). By introducing changes with reshoring and similar initiatives in global supply chains, manufacturers are aiming to diversify their supply chains and manage their stocks better by assuming the benefits of proximity (Juergensen et al., 2020). Altogether, localized supply sources and regional value networks can be very useful for diversifying, mitigating risks to business continuity, controlling transaction costs, improving economies of scale, and increasing supply chain resilience (Belhadi et al., 2021; Kim & Lee, 2021).
Reconfigurability and repurposing
Most studies reviewed here (Cai & Luo, 2020; Elsahn & Siedlok, 2021; Ivanov, 2021b; Javaid et al., 2020b) discuss the rise of repurposing. Firms applied scalability and convertibility principles (Napoleone & Prataviera, 2020) to their smart manufacturing systems and logistical capacities to support the healthcare supply chain. Reconfiguring their industrial systems and machine tools enabled manufacturers to adapt their production lines and capacities to new demands, enabling repurposing (Monostori & Váncza, 2020; Napoleone & Prataviera, 2020). For instance, car manufacturers repurposed their lines to produce respirators (Advincula et al., 2020; Monostori & Váncza, 2020), and appliance manufacturers repurposed production lines of hairdryers and vacuum cleaners to produce ventilators (W. Liu et al., 2021a, 2021b). Following governments’ appeals to share supply chain capabilities and manufacturing capacities to meet critical life-saving equipment shortages (Advincula et al., 2020; Elsahn & Siedlok, 2021), the public and societies worldwide also stepped up as repurposed manufacturers. Individuals have used garage spaces and universities their resources and skilled staff/students (engineering teams) to repurpose (Advincula et al., 2020; Hoosain et al., 2020; Okorie et al., 2020; Tareq et al., 2021; Tian et al., 2021) to meet shortfalls in supply.
Interventions like these introduce manufacturing flexibility that enables demand and supply reallocation to manage changes smoothly in the production systems (Ivanov & Dolgui, 2020). Such temporary repurposing not only fulfilled the surging demand for medical supplies, but also, to some extent, made up for manufacturers’ lost demand of their normal production line (Juergensen et al., 2020). Moreover, in tackling the bullwhip effect, manufacturers have chosen to rearrange their capacities and targets; evidence suggests that many manufacturers used moderate operational optimization strategies, whereby they adjusted their targets to cope with the pandemic (Lu et al., 2021).
Coopetition and collaborative manufacturing
With COVID-19, coopetition – collaboration between competing businesses – is emerging as an effective strategy for supporting resourcing strategies (Elsahn & Siedlok, 2021) and preventing stock-outs (Hilmola et al., 2020). Many studies advocate coopetition for increasing supply chain resiliency, improving manufacturers’ service levels and safeguarding their reputations (Paul & Chowdhury, 2020b). Another output of coopetition is exaptation, whereby ecosystems evolve for the collective good in order to explore the possibility of pivoting a new function from an already existing one without additional developmental costs (W. Liu et al., 2021a, 2021b). It is also expected that coopetition may enable emergency sourcing of raw materials to allow production of some items in larger quantities, despite many manufacturers still operating at reduced capacity (Paul & Chowdhury, 2020b). Such competitor collaboration is aimed at bringing value for all stakeholders whilst fulfilling the critical demands of the hour (Rapaccini et al., 2020; Sharma et al., 2020). In addition, collaboration with trade unions/associations and other value chain stakeholders is also recommended by some studies (Napoleone & Prataviera, 2020; Rapaccini et al., 2020).
Lean and agile manufacturing techniques
Flexible strategies supporting the supply, demand and process functions can independently increase the flexibility and resilience of manufacturing supply chains (Rajesh, 2021). With operations centred on standardized processes despite limited resources, lean manufacturing is re-emerging as a flexible technique for improving the pandemic readiness of manufacturers (Abdallah Ali, 2021; Handfield et al., 2020; Paucar et al., 2020). Studies propose a combination of lean and agile systems—eagile manufacturing—that can help manufacturers stay ahead of their competitors even in such disruptive times (Khoo & Hock, 2020). This technique can help tackle COVID-induced volatility in markets and consumer needs by responding to unstable demands downstream, and offering level scheduling upstream (Khoo & Hock, 2020). Many studies recommend agile smart supply chain planning, potentially to supress supply and demand volatility whilst recalibrating and optimizing supply chain operations (Cai & Luo, 2020). In addition, lean approaches can achieve value at the low cost while maintaining stable demands, including an agile paradigm for aptly responding to demand fluctuations in product lines (Okorie et al., 2020). For instance, a study (Abdallah Ali, 2021) employed process optimization embedded in lean manufacturing across an aluminium factory and achieved significant reduction in the need for labour (down by 50%), including noteworthy cost savings, rendering the factory pandemic-ready.
Industry 4.0 (I4.0) and digital technologies in manufacturing were already on the rise (Juergensen et al., 2020) prior to COVID-19. Now digital technologies are considered key for long-term resilient manufacturing (Kamarthi & Li, 2020; Queiroz et al., 2020; Sharma et al., 2020). Digitalized supply chains and networks reduce design complexities and improve connectivity and resource flow, which help in managing existing strategic relationships whilst identifying new possible relationships (Kim & Lee, 2021). I4.0 manufacturing execution systems can expedite manufacturers’ response to severe market disruptions, such as the one caused by COVID-19, including adverse changes in market demand, material flows, replenishment and composition to enable manufacturing flexibility (Mantravadi et al., 2020). Our review suggests, COVID-19 has fast-tracked the ongoing trend of digitalization, with more manufacturers now realizing the urgency of investing in new technologies (Belhadi et al., 2021; Mantravadi et al., 2020; Moutray, 2020; Rapaccini et al., 2020). Most firms are focusing on IoT-based systems touted for their potential to maintain agility and visibility across networks (Kim & Lee, 2021; Sharma et al., 2020; Wuest et al., 2020). Industrial IoT (IIoT) can connect factories to minimize production risk from plant closures (Li et al., 2020).
Manufacturing will soon be characterized by automated processes, advanced manufacturing, and digital customer interactions (Javaid et al., 2020b; Juergensen et al., 2020; Terry et al., 2020). Many studies have vouched for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies to improve social capital, and increase supply chain productivity (Kim & Lee, 2021). Digital technologies also help align human capital and environmental resources to improve product lifecycle predictions (Diaz-Elsayed et al., 2020). In extending the discussion on AI, some studies also investigate the potential of robotics. The increased human–machine interaction supports social distancing and expedites manufacturing (Javaid et al., 2020b). This allows industries and individuals to carry out both commercial and non-commercial operations, sometimes with increased precision; for instance, the use of AI and robotics in healthcare (Cai & Luo, 2020), (Monostori & Váncza, 2020). Another advantage of AI is that it enables continuous monitoring of global suppliers (Linton & Vakil, 2020). Investing in supplier monitoring can help control inventory, monitor deviations, forecast changes, track and trace raw materials, and fast-track responses (Linton & Vakil, 2020). Other technologies like Big Data Analytics (BDA) and digital twins coupled with predictive engineering are also very effective in transmitting real-time information to stay up to date on supply chain activities in uncertain situations (Belhadi et al., 2021; Mantravadi et al., 2020; Okorie et al., 2020). Such options can minimize capacity losses, and reduce societal health risks (by overcoming complexities of travel restrictions and social distancing) (Li et al., 2020) to mitigate production-related COVID-19 disruptions.
Additive manufacturing, such as 3D printing, has also received tremendous interest from researchers (Bragazzi, 2020; Monostori & Váncza, 2020; Napoleone & Prataviera, 2020), as it enables real-time short-run production aimed at quickly fulfilling critical demands, while keeping waste to a minimum (Manero et al., 2020; Patel & Gohil, 2020). Unpredictable demands in turbulent times are best tackled by employing technologies such as 3D printing as they enable flexibility (Liu et al., 2021a, 2021b); for instance, 3D printing is reducing dependence on normal supply chains to empower localized production of critical medical equipment (Advincula et al., 2020). Use of 3D technologies (in addition to IoT, AI, machine learning, robotics, Big Data) aligns with the United Nations sustainable development goals in potentially offering solutions to most societal problems, including COVID-19 (Hoosain et al., 2020). Many 3D printing companies are publicly sharing their manufacturing technology, so corporations and individuals with enough resources can use it to produce necessary parts to be used in treating COVID-19 patients (Tareq et al., 2021). Global open-source designs are also available and these enable the use of 3D printing for designing and manufacturing PPE and medical equipment at a large scale (Hoosain et al., 2020; Javaid et al., 2020b; Liu et al., 2021a, 2021b). Supporting equipment, such as drones (for surveillance, lockdown enforcement, and even spraying disinfectants to aid sanitization) and hands-free door openers are being produced using this technology (Patel & Gohil, 2020).
Servitization and service provision
Many manufacturers have been rapidly turning to servitization—a transformation process, whereby companies shift focus from ‘creating value by producing/selling a product’ to ‘creating value by delivering a service enabled by that product’ (Kapoor et al., 2021a, 2021b). Having the reputation for stabilizing business operations across manufacturing firms during turbulent times, some studies propose servitization as a tactic to help manufacturers redesign their offerings, so they can find alternative ways to recover from disruptive events (Okorie et al., 2020; Rapaccini et al., 2020; Tian et al., 2021). Studies (Rapaccini et al., 2020; Tian et al., 2021) suggest a combination of servitization and digitalization, i.e., digital servitization that employs IIoT (also referred to as smart servitization) and other smart connected products to deliver advanced services to customers during COVID times. Manufacturers offering advanced services via platform-based servitization models present a higher likelihood of performing better than those limited to basic services in disruptive situations like the pandemic (Tian et al., 2021).
Government policies are expected to play a significant role, with the supply, demand and environment policy types now enforced to tackle COVID-19 challenges (Cai & Luo, 2020). Policymakers are being expected to play a role in supporting resourcing strategies, mostly by acting as communicators and negotiators to enable coordination, cooperation, and knowledge sharing between competing manufacturers (Elsahn & Siedlok, 2021). In fact, given the more cooperative nature of current manufacturing, some studies have contemplated the need for policies in a post-COVID era that can support cooperative (coopetition) manufacturing (Monostori & Váncza, 2020). Furthermore, policies are needed for increasing manufacturing competitiveness, specifically for those businesses that are restructuring supply chains and considering on-shoring (Moutray, 2020). Support policies for restoring production activities and manufacturing supply chains are also on the horizon (Lu et al., 2021).
In addition, some studies (Lu et al., 2021) find that manufacturing industries are more inclined towards tax preferences and employment subsidies. Policies should thus focus on long-term subsidized digitalization-specific loans, funding for training and apprenticeships, financial aid to support company growth, and digital advisory support available for supply chains (Harris et al., 2020). In addition to the advisory, specific policies can be aimed at capacitating academic institutions with training programmes and certifications, to upskill the workforce in rendering them digitally fit (Diaz-Elsayed et al., 2020; Kamarthi & Li, 2020). In further empowering the workforce, propositions have been made to introduce interest-free capital from governments to account for fixed costs in the industry, including wages (Sahoo & Ashwani, 2020). There is some evidence to suggest stimulus measures and policies focused on labour can effectively protect employment and lower the liquidity crunches for boosting the economy (Juergensen et al., 2020; Sahoo & Ashwani, 2020).
However, one size does not fit all; SMEs are most vulnerable and policies on internationalized networking and demand-oriented product and marketing innovations will be most effective for them (Juergensen et al., 2020). Targeted policies supporting entry into international markets would be most useful for standalone SMEs, and specialized SMEs would benefit from stronger local networks promoting the inclusion of their customers (multinational businesses) in the territory (Juergensen et al., 2020). Additionally, some recommendations demand policymakers’ attention to specifically tackle issues of connectivity across borders and rising transportation costs (Hilmola et al., 2020). A more generic recommendation is for systematic macro-guidance from governments to oversee the execution of targeted policies (Luo et al., 2020).