Technology has always played a critical role in manufacturing—from hand production methods, then machines and identifying how new advancements like cloud computing, the internet of things, and mobility can affect and improve the industry. But it’s hard to argue the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has made on the industry. Global supply chains have been disrupted in new ways, known challenges like labor shortages have been propelled to new heights and manufacturing leaders have been forced to embrace a world of “pivots.”

We’re fortunate to have history and experience on our side at Milliken & Company. As a 155-year-old global organization, our Textile Division is well-versed in approaching global challenges head-on—whether it’s navigating wartime, the Great Depression, or other pandemics—and one conclusion is certain: when a crisis hits, you always have a choice.

“With the recent labor shortages seen across industries, identifying opportunities to be more efficient and effective will continue to be a priority.”

At Milliken, our choice is to double down and invest for the future. Below are four key areas where I see the great opportunities for impact:

Applying Automation and Modernization to Solve Short- and Long-Term Challenges

With the recent labor shortages seen across industries, identifying opportunities to be more efficient and effective will continue to be a priority. One recent internal study conducted found that 70 percent of the tasks done in our plants around the world have the potential to be automated. While we’ve had our eye on opportunities for automation for years, we’ve recently begun targeted efforts to identify the right investments to make, including the establishment of a cross-functional Textile Division team that is aggressively tackling these workstreams. Automation can not only help improve performance and delivery to our customers but also improve safety in our facilities, which is a Milliken core value.

In addition to automation, it’s important to keep an eye on modernization projects. These current decisions might see challenges when assessing their financial payback, but being strategic about upgrading technology can help us improve business growth by producing more products with less labor, less scrap, and having better conversions with utilities and efficiencies.

Using Manufacturing Analytics to Improve Decision Making

Having mass data at your fingertips is a powerful but often underutilized tool. If your data isn’t answering questions like, “how do we get real-time feedback on our equipment?” or, “how can we get our process engineers’ data on uptime and run time more quickly?” then your data isn’t working hard enough for you. At Milliken, we’re making significant investments in hardware and software that will empower our facilities to answer these questions (and more) quicker as one key pillar to our strategic business approach of digitalization.

Implementing Systems for Greater Collaboration

Balancing short-term tactile business with long-term strategic business goals is one of the thinnest lines you can walk as a leader in manufacturing. When you put the right systems in place, you’re giving your team the space and ability to think critically, independently, and creatively to better solve problems. With multiple business units under the Textile Division, we recognized the need for greater collaboration and connectedness and began our supply inventory and operations planning (SIOP) journey a few years ago. Our process is leading to improvements in balancing supply against demand, scenario planning with supporting data, and identifying gaps to our goals. The implementation of the right tools allows our teams access to better information and enable them to work more efficiently.

While the SIOP journey is one critical piece of the puzzle, we haven’t backed down from making even more investments to aid in increasing inter-division connectedness. We’re upgrading to a unilateral customer relationship management (CRM) system to provide better functionality across job functions, give us a clearer lens to our pipeline, assist us in managing and adjusting risk, and support our SIOP process.

Making Strides in Sustainability

At Milliken, we’ve outlined an aggressive corporate-level sustainability initiative that was developed to improve our global environmental footprint. Now, these initiatives are easy to push to the back burner when the world flips upside down, but that doesn’t make it the right decision. Instead of using the pandemic as a reason for diverting attention from these goals, we’re using it as a time to closely analyze the opportunities we have to make progress. For example, globally we’re investing in small-scale projects that make our facilities and equipment more renewable, such as LED lighting installations and improved wastewater treatment systems to more large-scale investments, like the 2021 installation of one of the company’s most energy-efficient machines.

For Milliken, our compass is clear and unwavering—invest in textiles, address challenges creatively, and never stop innovating. In our experience, moments of crisis and chaos are not the time to start questioning strategy or experience. Rather, with leadership that is willing to support big ideas and enabling a team that thrives in the unknown, we know that’s when manufacturing magic can happen.