not normal

Working and Living in Not Normal Times

To a journalist like myself, this pandemic reminds me of story pitches about futuristic technologies in manufacturing, supply chain and fulfilment; these technologies don’t seem so far away in the future anymore.

Office workers have more or less, found the solution to prevent coronavirus infections – working from home, or being divided into smaller groups that alternate days to go to office; fewer people within four walls of an office, can mean safe social distance practice.

But there are other kinds of professions that do not have this “luxury” of working remotely. A few obvious ones are barbers and hairdressers and dentists who have to get up close and personal to do their jobs.

Yet other examples; and this is important; are workers in food processing, manufacturing or supply chain enablement industries.

In the United States, conditions in meat-packing plants make it near impossible to practice social distancing. As a result, one major production plant owned by Smithfield, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has almost 800 workers testing positive for the coronavirus. There are likely many more plants closed down.

Across the ocean, French workers are suing Amazon for endangering their lives, saying it is impossible to comply with social distancing guidelines at Amazon’s six distribution centres that employ 10,000 permanent and contract staff. French court has recently ruled for Amazon to suspend deliveries of non-essential items. Even an accidental shipment of a small amount of unauthorised goods, can result in over a billion euros in penalty.

On a global scale, Amazon has over 1,000 sites and due to the unprecedented surge in online shopping, the company has had to quickly hire 80,000 workers in just the United States. But, despite Amazon making over 150 process changes to enhance worker safety, French and American distribution workers are saying, it is simply not happening the way Amazon says it is.

In Malaysia itself, communications regulator, MCMC, has outlined safety guidelines and allowed Internet installation and maintenance work to continue at customer premises. But this applies to ONLY premises within Green Zones that have no confirmed COVID-19 cases. At Yellow and Red Zone areas, telco personnel are strictly prohibited from entering premises, unless that premise provides essential and critical services.

Technology comes to save the day?

What that’s happening around the world today, brings to mind a recent webinar about digital transformation during challenging times. One of the panellists had pointed out, if large scale automated systems had been in place, factories could keep running without people needing to be on-site.

That may, or may not be true.

Maybe, Amazon and Smithfield could even have prevented having too many workers at their distribution centres or food plants, at any one time.

At a glance, technologies like automation and robotics seem suitable to fill the gap caused by humans having to distance themselves now.

Are they?

In a Financial Express article, ABB argues for the use of automation in India’s mining industry, saying there is potential to save the sector an estimated USD373 billion, and hundreds of lives by 2025 could be kept our of harms’ way with use of automated machinery operations, planning and scheduling, predictive maintenance, man, material and asset traceability and so on.

In Malaysia, drones and robotics are being used in FELCRA’s plantation management and operations, as well as to reduce workload of plantation workers.

After the outbreak occurred and the world went into lockdown, in Singapore, China and US. collaborative robots or cobots emerged to take over specific and risky tasks in hospitals, for example virus testing, and delivering medicine and meals to infected patients.

There are also industry observers who predict drones being robust enough to deliver heavier packages in 10 to 15 years time. Along that same train of thought, why can’t there be more production centres that are smaller and closer to customers – instead of ordering products from overseas, couldn’t 3D printers ‘produce’ them domestically instead, and ship them directly to customers, observers ask to test the theory.

What’s it looking like so far?

The pace of digital transformation has accelerated during this pandemic.

McKinsey reports that Asian banks have swiftly migrated physical channels online, insurers offer self-service claims assessment or tele-advisory, retailers have moved to contactless shopping and delivery.

But as asserted earlier in this article, operations at the backend need to be looked into as well. E-commerce is booming, but it has created bottlenecks and pressure at processing and distribution parts of a long supply chain. Smithfield and Amazon are two cases in point.

Besides this, there are parties who think trade can become more efficient.

Head of Digital Trade at the World Economic Forum, Fan Ziyang proposes blockchain, as a way to share sensitive information to relevant parties, digitally, and in a timely manner. The reason for this, besides saving time, is because visibility is crucial for buyers to know as soon as possible if they need to find alternative suppliers. The current use of paper during every step of the process, is proving to be time-consuming as well as inefficient.

A Malaysian case study

In urban areas of Malaysia, simple communications tech like Whatsapp is used to fill the gaps left by retail grocers. As big outlets like Aeon, Tesco and Giant scrambled to implement protocols for safe distance shopping, there was also a mad scramble by the public to stock up on food and supplies for at least two weeks.

Grocery outlets that had online presences, cashed in, and then kind of under-delivered because there was just so much demand. reported in the UK, that online supermarket Ocado, had delivery slots up to three weeks, snapped up in just one hour.

This is the kind of online grocery shopping frenzy we are facing right now.

Fortunately for Malaysians, what has emerged for now is another channel via Whatsapp that links up fresh food supply (vegetables, seafood, etc) to demand, aka hungry Malaysians.

The mechanics is simple but effective, and at time of writing, delivery services like Grab and Lalamove have become popular because private vehicles are not allowed to travel more than 10km from their homes. But no one knows how long these delivery services can sustain and meet demand for timely delivery especially at peak hours, as more and more Malaysians start to use them.

Disruption and truths

This pandemic has exposed how vulnerable supply chains are.

International supply chains are similarly disrupted and on a much bigger scale, due to quarantines, reduced air travel and even closed country borders.

Supply chain preparedness has to be reviewed, and if before countries have been cognisant of needing to reduce dependence on China, this time they are urgently looking to put their factories elsewhere in Asia. The pandemic has taught us the hard lesson, with examples in our own backyard, that we need to move away from single-source to a diversity of sources.

That isn’t all that it is showing us.

A few important truths have been established during this time; that a safe vaccine is at least 18 months away. Virus testing and social distancing, masks and hand sanitisers will be part of our reality for that long, if not longer.

But many, many other things are in flux right now.

A few immediate pressing ones are that consumption is changing, habits are changing, and priorities are changing. Small to medium-sized companies are particularly exposed, driving unemployment and piling up bills, in different economies around the world. For example, in the US, tens of millions of tenants have to choose between paying rent or putting food on the table. At one point, oil prices dipped below zero, because there is so much of it, and nowhere to put it. It may happen again.

The Economist has an eye-opening article, about distressed sectors, for example car companies in Europe, as well as airlines, possibly being snapped up by rivals in the same sector, or even from technology sector players – buy offers from global technology companies is not an impossibility. State-owned companies taking over global brands that perform poorly, is not an impossibility. Factories being set up closer to home, with robotics to power them, is not an impossibility. Big tech brands that were scrutinised for monopoly and privacy before, may lead the global tech economy forward during and after the pandemic.

There are indications of these above and a few other things, as possibly happening.

After the dust has settled, the world economies as we know it may be drastically different. We have to be ready for anything.