Despite disruption, 2020 has been a time of significant innovation for manufacturers. As Mark Hughes explores, the trick now is to ensure the best of recent digitisation is carried forward into the future.
The effects of COVID-19 have rippled across every industry, but its impact on manufacturers stands out as unique. While sectors like aviation and events have suffered, manufacturing has come out of the eye of the crisis with a few silver linings in tow. That’s not to say that British factories haven’t struggled throughout this period; you’d be hard pressed to find a manufacturer that hasn’t faced some difficult choices over the course of the year. But the new now has ultimately led to many opportunities.
Digitisation has been a long-time goal for many manufacturers. Yet, for those with an ageing workforce who are perhaps more likely to be sceptical about new technology – and prospects who weren’t sure the investment would pay off – uptake has been slow.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – if factories worked fine, there was little pressure to evolve.
However, the onset of lockdown saw restrictions from mandatory remote working to limits on how many people can be in one area at a time to enable social distancing. Manufacturers had to adapt to stay in business – and fast.
Now, they’re in the fortunate position of being able to pick and choose the best of those new processes and technologies going forward. So, what should they be focusing on?
Manufacturing isn’t just machine powered; it’s people powered, too. So, what happens when those people are told to stay home?
In a matter of days, floors had to evolve, with many businesses implementing Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on machinery to monitor performance remotely. Now, as things are slowly going back to the way they were, can those sensors compete with the good old-fashioned hands of a seasoned engineer?
Both offer convenience in their own ways, but the cost of ongoing high-tech maintenance, training and equipment might present a barrier to continued use. It’s all a matter of striking the balance between more traditional factory set-ups and the new now, incorporating the benefits of this sudden digital acceleration while retaining the perks of having human staff on the floor.
The human versus machine debate also affects recruitment. It might be more difficult or more expensive to find staff who are well versed in any new implemented technologies, but could the very nature of those systems make it easier?
With remote working enabled, manufacturers are free to choose from a much wider pool of talent – something that’s especially relevant to the industry given its often isolated site locations.
The proposition of a truly flexible role in a field that used to be the very opposite could be a big pull. Combine this with manufacturing’s relative stability compared to other industries and it’s not difficult to see why the sector is reputationally bouncing back to be considered a solid place to be employed and do business – which, in turn, causes a surge in fresh blood to drive digital change.
Mind over matter
With so much digital growth and opportunity in the industry, it’s hard to see why manufacturers didn’t start embarking on digital transformation plans sooner. It’s not just those employed in the industry who saw the benefits either.
In a bid to alleviate supply chain issues, many factories pivoted almost overnight to produce completely different in-demand products – including Mercedes F1, BrewDog and Dyson to name just a few.
Not necessarily profitable ventures, but honourable ones, nonetheless. Few businesses would have considered swapping from making vacuum cleaners to hospital beds or racing cars to face masks overnight pre-COVID, but now these organisations have witnessed their own power to pivot – and, with any luck, this inspiration will fuel further change.
The real silver lining, beyond merely accelerating digitisation, was a shift in mindset. Next time a manufacturer has an idea, they’ll feel more confident in running with it as a result of the last few months, knowing they can trust their team and technologies to cope with even the sharpest of turnarounds. And with better support from recently digitised platforms, they’ll be able to make it happen smoothly and efficiently.
While budgetary and practicality constraints persist, they’re no match for manufacturers having the confidence to follow their ideas and the drive to see them through to completion. As we’ve seen, small developments can have a butterfly effect. Each step towards digitisation attracts more forward-thinking people to continue the trend, as well as inspiring existing team members to think and actively reach outside the box. Change is never easy but, with the right tools in place and attitude in mind, anything is possible.