While the coronavirus pandemic initially threw the manufacturing industry into turmoil, it also catalyzed some significant changes that experts say will have a long-lasting, positive impact. 

During the early days of the crisis, Insider selected the top ten people from North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific transforming the manufacturing industry, and recently brought six of those honorees together for a roundtable discussion.

From North America, we had Que Dallara, CEO of Honeywell’s Connected Enterprise, Artug Acar, director of product management at warehouse robotics firm RightHand Robotics and Colin Parris, chief technology officer and senior vice president at GE Digital. From the Asia Pacific region, we had Ronna Chao, chairperson of Novetex Textiles. From Europe, we had Selina Ambrose, technical manager of nanomaterial maker Promethean Particles and Daniel Hannemann, cofounder of electricity-storage-systems manufacturer Tesvolt.

Together, these execs chatted about the benefits of new communication tools, the advantage of artificial intelligence and automation, and how their companies have pushed themselves to focus on sustainability.

All that and more below, in the transcript from Business Insider’s Manufacturing Transformers roundtable.

Transcript has been edited for clarity and length:

Business Insider: How do you think that the pandemic altered manufacturing? What changes are here to stay?

Acar: I think the pandemic really tested the resilience of the manufacturing and logistics industry. The ones that could adapt fast and change their processes quickly really succeeded. Amazon and the other ‘big five’ companies they really grew fast while the mid-size companies really faced big challenges like labor availability and flexibility during this time and struggled.

You’d expect small companies to adapt faster, but because of the importance of digitization, data, and artificial intelligence, the big ones — with the infrastructure they already had — were able to adapt to the changing conditions a lot better than the smaller ones.

Also, after the pandemic, I think commerce will be a lot faster and easier. And historically, when commerce becomes faster and easier, it really changes civilization. We are not then at the end of the pandemic yet, so it’s yet to be seen.

Ambrose: Not just for manufacturing businesses, but all businesses, I think the reliance on video conferencing is probably going to stay. For example, we have customers we work with in Japan and getting out there to meet face-to-face has always been a struggle, something that needs weeks or months of planning. And now we just set up a video call and can have a better conversation than before when we may have been relying on emails. So, I think communication has improved in some ways and I think that’s to stay.

Parris: We finally gotten to a point where digitization technology is proven. I’ve had CEOs tell me, ‘We thought it would take four or five years to digitize things. It was done in five weeks.’ So I think that’s a big part.

In terms of manufacturing, on the notion of remote management and monitoring, we used to say, ‘We need people on site.’ But in the last nine months, we’ve been using the data of digital twins to monitor the systems. People have accepted that.

On production planning and orchestration, when we look at some of the big players like Procter and Gamble, there were points where people weren’t buying certain things — because restaurants weren’t open — so they had to decide, ‘If I’m going to deliver this type of food services, how fast can you switch those operations?’ So we saw customers use some of our advanced analytics to switch from one form of production to another and quickly get to a point where they orchestrated it down to the line, so they can turn their factories around.

Before, they were reluctant to do it as quickly, now we’ve gotten to a point where it’s proven.

Dallara: COVID has certainly accelerated digitization: It’s actually one of the aspects of demand that has been fairly resilient. While volume dropped out of many sectors of the economy in the last 12 months, digital is one of those must-do investments that remained.

At a very high level, there are three trends that I think will persist in some degree post-pandemic. Remote work, virtual meetings, the reduction in business travel: That’s going to remain. Number two is virtual transactions: Whether it’s in telemedicine or online grocery delivery, more things will be done virtually — we’ve seen our e-commerce business increase dramatically because of that. And then the last one is automation and AI adoption, whether that’s robotic process automation or industrial service robots — and even maybe AR and VR moving out of the ‘toy’ category into something that’s real and more mainstream.

I think these three things are likely to be durable post-pandemic.

Chao: Someone mentioned communication: It’s not high-tech but I think it’s very key.

In the past, if I visited a factory I probably met with a small team of key managers, but now, with video, we have all the different section leaders in the room. I think they all appreciate being able to meet with the management team and we appreciate being able to talk to them directly. Especially when we’re having challenging times, I think this kind of team building and connectivity is very, very important.

Hannemann: We have learned in the pandemic that B2B sales works digitally. Before COVID, we personally visited our customers and we spent a lot of time traveling. Today, we’ve completely digitized our sales process and our salesforce can now serve many more customers than before. In the future, we can scale our business even faster in the sales process than in the past, and this is one of the benefits.

Business Insider: How can businesses reduce waste and become more sustainable in manufacturing going forward?

Dallara: Honeywell made a pledge on April 8 to be carbon neutral by 2035 and we have short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals towards that. And it’s not just for ourselves: We try and think about it from the standpoint of ‘How do we also help our customers achieve their sustainability goals?’

For example, for climate control in Honeywell buildings (where air conditioning and so forth generates a lot of energy), we’ve built software that optimizes comfort levels but also drives down energy costs through automation. So that’s a massive area.

Parris: We generate a significant amount of energy and we have a significant amount of capability around the grid, so our focus has been ‘How do you connect our big renewable energy business into the current grid?’

In the grid software itself, we’re trying to match supply and demand. The demand is changing, because you’re bringing in all of these electric vehicles, new building capabilities, etc, so how do you actually integrate those things? We have grid software that’s seeking to deliver stability so the grid stays up, but at the same time, reduce carbon as well as reduce costs.

There’s also an internal dimension around this notion of the ‘circular economy’ where you ask, ‘Can I use less of certain products? Can I reuse those products after? Can I optimize the factory?’

Hannemann: Tesvolt develops energy storage systems, so its our mission to reduce carbon dioxide worldwide, we work every day for that. On the manufacturing side, we also try to reduce waste in all areas. We have installed solar panels on our factory, we only use recycled paper for our packaging, and a minimum amount of plastic film. My vision for the future is that we want to replace all plastic with biodegradable plastic. That’s our next vision.

Chao: Recycled yarn is not anything new, but in our effort to be even more environmentally aware and sustainable, we designed the “Billie System” which is a textile up-cycling system that is almost fully automated, doesn’t use any water (unlike traditional recycling processes), and it doesn’t release any harmful chemicals.

When we started thinking about this project, we were really focusing on our own internally produced textile waste in the manufacturing process. That could be lots that are mis-dyed, or something with quality, or in many cases, we just make a buffer quantity for our customers: We put in for a little margin of error, maybe 5%. This extra 5% is not necessarily always bought by the customer so it becomes excess inventory. So we thought about ways to recapture the value of what we label textile waste, and the Billie System is very good at upcycling all of that and recapturing the value.

We also help our customers get involved in the earlier stages of the of the whole process, from the design stage to the merchandising stage, so that they are more enthusiastic about using upcycled yarn. So we work very closely with them to develop different quantities, qualities. For instance, we’ve been able to combine bedsheets from a five star hotel with some silk from a very high-end fashion house to come up with a product that that is quite widely acceptable and light.

Ambrose: We manufacture nanomaterials, or specialty chemicals, and we have our raw material inputs, then our reactor systems to create the nanoparticles, which are our products (or our outputs).

We want to minimize the amount of byproducts we get — the amount of waste — which is great from a sustainability point of view but also from a financial point of view. So the way we aim to do that without impacting the performance or properties of our products is we start from R&D, when we’re developing these processes of making these nanoparticles.

In the last two years, we’ve started taking a AI and machine learning approach to screen all sorts of different reaction parameters to see, where is that sweet spot of getting the right conditions to drive that yield as high as possible but still getting the product quality. And we’ve seen some really fantastic results: It’s been so much quicker by using an AI approach than if we did it manually. It sped up the process and hugely minimized the amount of waste we’re generating.

But then also, byproducts are still in, in some cases inevitable. So we’ve been looking at how we can recycle those and reuse them.

Business Inisder: The pandemic certainly caused people to appreciate automation and robotics more: Do you think that that’s going to be a lasting trend? Could you speak to what you see as the future there?

Acar: Before the pandemic, when we were talking to our customers, we were always talking about the future of automation or the future of logistics and supply chain. Today, we talk about it as today’s problem. The future has come.

Automation is now a necessity more than a choice: It’s not just for the big companies thinking about the 5-to-10 year timeframe, it’s about today.

At the beginning of the pandemic, everything slowed down, to be honest. Smaller players were reluctant to make investments for the first four or five months. But since the beginning of this year, compared to the pre-pandemic era, the interest is actually doubling. We’re also seeing more interest at the C-level. In the past, it was more mid-level warehouse managers bringing these automation systems to attention, but now the interest is coming from the C-level executives.

The challenge in this business is not for the major players — they have the financial means to make these investments — the challenges are for the mid-tier players. How can you make these systems available for the mid-tiers, when it’s not easy for them to invest as much money for automation? You have companies like Shopify with the acquisition of 6 River Systems providing these automation systems to those mid-tier players — and I think we need more companies like Shopify. Overall, the market is picking up and it’s gonna be an exciting next couple of years for automation.

Parris: It’s not just the the automation side of it: Another side effect of robotics is the fact that you collect data. People, for instance, take visual inspections that they capture on paper. They may see a part is bad and they give it a rank from one to 10. Now, with the robots doing that, you can literally take pictures and videos, and you get much, much more accurate data and you get it in a way that it’s sustainable. Before, when did inspections on Fridays or Mondays, we would throw away more scrap, because the humans were ready for the weekend or they just came back from the weekend.

Robotics helps with productivity, and with things being done the same way, but the data gathering techniques are even more important because once I have the data, I can do digital twins or AI which allow me to change rapidly and respond better.

Dallara: We’ve all previously lived this “break-fix” model but I think we’re seeing a shift towards a more predictive model where you can know in advance when something will need to be fixed, so you don’t run it until it fails. Software that allows you to collect data is going to save a lot of time and effort.