How can manufacturers future proof against the pandemic?
The manufacturing industry, like all sectors, was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, from supply chains to the factory floor. Tim Parkinson, Airedale Springs’ chairman, believes that something has to change now, so that manufacturers can prevent a similar situation from happening again. He said, “Not since the imposition of the three-day week back in the 1970’s has an event forced business to work differently. Any good business should examine its operation, what it does and why; and is it beneficial to the business, its employees and the environment; not just for today but also for tomorrow. The world has changed and so must we.”
So how can businesses protect themselves from being negatively affected by events like these in the future? Parkinson believes that one solution is investing in smart factories. Automation has been a vital component of the manufacturing industry even before the global pandemic, but it’s now clearer than ever that implementing a smart factory can go a long way to prevent issues such as skills and raw material shortages, which are detrimental to productivity and the bottom line.
This is because Industry 4.0 technologies, such as the Internet of Things and autonomous robots, can offer better solutions to manufacturing businesses in the future. These include creating a safe workspace for staff, using virtual reality or remote communication for training, helping to create a more flexible workforce and aiding in the development of innovative processes and systems.
For those businesses that haven’t invested in automation yet – or those that know they could be doing more – the pandemic has proved to be a catalyst for change. For instance, manufacturers need agile and flexible processes if they hope to survive an event such as the coronavirus outbreak. Parkinson comments: “As spring manufacturers, automation is a key feature at Airedale Springs, from the cutting-edge simulation software we use to the latest CNC machines that allows us to manufacture products to our clients’ exact specifications.”
Working around skills shortages
Businesses that relied mainly on personnel during lockdown saw how hard it was to stay open or to conduct business as normally as possible. Automation offers an added degree of safety that is capable of keeping businesses afloat even during the most challenging of circumstances. “Social distancing is likely to remain in place for a while, which means businesses may have to learn to perform with a reduced workforce,” says Parkinson. “The manufacturing industry is already suffering from a skills gap and from a lack of young people interested in manufacturing, which only serves to worsen the problem. Automation ensures that production carries on even if you’re unable to have a fully staffed premise, and it can help you to keep the quality high no matter what.”
So, while the potential of personnel restrictions can lead to limited production (and even shut the facility in its entirety), an investment in automated processes and machinery, as well as on digital technologies, can provide businesses with a great deal of security and prepare them for future issues.
Diversifying supply chains
It’s clear from the outcome of the pandemic that many (if not most) manufacturing businesses around the world were not ready for the massive disruption of the supply chain. “Focusing your supply chain in just one area, for example, can result in your production slowing down or stopping if factories close,” says Parkinson. “This is why many manufacturers struggled when factories in China were shut down – many were relying heavily on those suppliers and were, therefore, left without key materials or products for a long time. This impacted their business massively, as it led to huge delays.”
Investing in several supply chains, then, and more importantly local supply chains is not just important to prevent supply disruptions, it’s also crucial to be able to answer spikes of productivity, such as seasonal bursts.
While there has been an increasing focus on local manufacturing, especially after rising tariffs, the global pandemic appears to have accelerated this and Brexit may further compound this issue. “More businesses are looking for local manufacturers, which are closer to them and capable of delivering a faster turnaround,” says Parkinson. “These short lead times are vital for businesses and allows them to manufacture on demand.”
While relying on globalised manufacturing is not going to go away, we may start to see more onshore production, meaning businesses can better future-proof themselves against delays and downtime. “They will be more in control of their products and won’t have to keep massive inventory, not to mention how they can get the right products to their clients in a timely manner,” Parkinson says. “Automation and robotics have made it easier to manufacture products locally, so it’s likely we’ll continue to see an increase in this, especially as it creates more resilience in supply chains.”
The manufacturing industry is constantly changing and it’s important that manufacturers can keep up with it in order to be successful. “Being flexible is key for this,” says Parkinson. “As the pandemic showed, flexible businesses that were capable of adapting to the unique circumstances and challenges were also able to stay afloat. They were also capable of creating different products, as seen by how manufacturers began to produce ventilators.
“This flexibility will continue to be just as important in the future. Stores and services are opening but operating in a limited capacity, which makes it more difficult for employees to put their children in daycare or school; this, in turn, leads to conflicts with work schedules. If your staff can work from home, you don’t have to worry about productivity, since they can still do their jobs.
“The pandemic has raised the talk about flexible working and a business having a better work life balance. Airedale Springs introduced flexible working in 1998 and it has severed us well accepting that not all employees can work from home or wish too.”
For Parkinson, it’s crucial that Airedale Springs continues to value a seamless – and efficient – integration of employees and autonomous equipment. He added: “Airedale Springs has remained open throughout the pandemic. Its wide customer base, supported by flexible operations and hardworking staff using the latest in CNC automation allowed the company to keep its customers going. We have learnt lessons and are planning for changes yet to come and will be as ready as we can be for anything in the future because of these measures. Change forces change and we have to embrace it.”
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