Four leading experts at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) at the University of Cambridge advise how businesses can best prepare for the months and years ahead, and any future disruption that may come.
Duncan McFarlane, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Head of the Distributed Information and Automation Lab, IfM
In this time of uncertainty, it’s important that you don’t forget what you do well and what you’ve always done well. But you should also look at what you’ve done well during the lockdown and whether that can supplement your capability base.
When thinking about innovation, it’s important to remember that everyone in a company can innovate. And innovation can be cheap. You don’t have to do a big spend to get into R&D and new development; you can harness low-cost, grassroots activities within your existing structure.
Some key areas related to automation and information can also provide long-term benefits and which are particularly worth considering as we pass into the next phase of economic recovery. These include:
- No touch operations. Consider ‘no touch’ techniques such as voice, gesture and vision which can reduce the amount of physical interactions between the workforce and the workplace.
- Distant and remote monitoring. Enhance and extend monitoring of processes and equipment, especially in environments where access is complex or compromising.
- Remote system management. Consider to what extent operations can be managed safely, securely and effectively from a remote location.
In addition, there are important questions you should ask about your product and parts tracking and traceability.
Are your supply lines secure and visible? Is the provenance of incoming parts and products guaranteed? Is this an issue for your customers? Do your supplier and procurement arrangements encompass the provision of product data as well as the product itself?
Thinking about these issues means not just taking them individually but reconsidering the traditional business basis for automation and information systems.
Consider low-cost, temporary, trial solutions and use these to develop a business case ‘on the fly’. We call this Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring, an approach the IfM has developed with partners to explore low-cost solutions to meet small-scale manufacturing needs.
Jag Srai, Head of Centre for International Manufacturing, IfM
In the coming months, the principal challenge for firms will be the ‘flexing’ of existing resources to meet highly volatile market requirements as some firms cope with a fall in consumer purchasing, while others struggle to meet demand surges.
Managing cash flow, sustaining the workforce, and smoothing demand through postponement or stimulation will be vital. The repurposing of assets may also provide new opportunities for servicing unfamiliar markets where product shortages arise.
Flexible supply chain systems including alternative supply sources, access to finance to address liquidity problems (from both public and private players), and – crucially – a flexible workforce are all necessary elements in enabling resilience over the next six to 12 months.
Looking further ahead, firms should consider how innovations to their operating models can provide the necessary levels of agility required for what will no doubt be a more uncertain future.
Strategic planning will now need to embrace not just the COVID-19 fall-out, but also broader challenges linked to possible trade discontinuities resulting from Brexit, US-China trade, the resurgence of protectionism, and the unsustainable consumption of natural resources and its impact on climate.
Indeed, a new internationalism and a global reconfiguration was on the cards before the pandemic and firms should reconsider their international manufacturing and sourcing footprint.
For essential industries, such as healthcare and food, partnerships between government and industry will be required to navigate the transition across the short and long term.
This will involve a combination of contingency planning that will include, where appropriate, strategic stockpiling and robust sourcing arrangements, leveraging existing manufacturing assets and new investments in advanced reconfigurable manufacturing technologies.
Responses to COVID-19 have shown good examples for how particular operating and business models demonstrated high levels of flexibility in a crisis. Many of these involved the ability to leverage and integrate internal and external resources and have early sight on changing supply and demand flows.
In many of these cases, the deployment of advanced technologies has been crucial. Those firms who had already invested in digitalisation of supply chains, digital platforms and reconfigurable manufacturing, excelled.
While new R&D and technology projects will not come through in the short term, they will be the foundation of future growth as well as more resilient business models. These will involve investments in digital product design, digital production and digital fulfilment.
So, although the impact of such investments will be felt further out, that work also starts today.
Carlos Lopez-Gomez, Head of Policy Links Unit, IfM Education and Consultancy Services
To emerge better prepared to address supply disruptions, manufacturers will need to improve understanding and end-to-end visibility of their supply chains to inform business, sector and national strategies.
Achieving visibility of increasingly complex supply chains is ever more crucial to identifying key vulnerabilities and taking mitigating actions. While many discussions have focused on tackling single source and dependency on China, vulnerabilities go way beyond these.
The ‘10 risk archetypes’ identified by the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy provide an example of what such analyses could include.
Industry leaders also have a critical role to play in informing government thinking. Online forums have been set up where businesses can tell government how they might be able to help with the response to COVID-19 (including the provision of manufacturing equipment and engineering services); provide information on the impact on their organisations (including information and feedback on the safer workplace guidance); and share stories of key workers.
These platforms are not without shortcomings, but they provide valuable communication channels. In addition, engaging with consultations and trade associations is as relevant as ever.
To emerge better prepared to respond to demand disruptions, international evidence already suggests a number of opportunities. These include SME internationalisation, market diversification, and accelerating the development of low-emission next-generation products and technologies.
Export advice, provision of market intelligence and public-private green innovation strategies are examples of relevant policy mechanisms that have been shaped with industry and are already being implemented in countries like Korea, Germany and Japan to help manufacturers venture to the markets of tomorrow.
Finally, building on the Industrial Strategy, continued investment is required in public and private technology development, along with sustained investment in institutions such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and initiatives such as Made Smarter that support the transfer of new technologies to industry, as well as the development of an advanced manufacturing workforce.
The dialogue between industry and government that we have observed in recent months is encouraging. It will be critical to continue the engagement across regions, involving SMEs, and making it a feature of policymaking in the UK for years to come.
Tim Minshall, Dr John C Taylor Professor of Innovation and Head of the Institute for Manufacturing
Three key areas of opportunity for manufacturing firms can be highlighted as the UK exits lockdown.
Firstly, despite the very real challenges of ensuring the short-term survival of manufacturing, there is an opportunity to focus on gaining the skills necessary to ensure longer-term growth.
This cannot just be about skills for ‘business as usual’ but has to also be about skills which enable firms to capture value from new opportunities.
It’s therefore encouraging to see how the COVID crisis has led to the development of multiple readily accessible online resources to support skills development across all aspects of manufacturing.
This uptake of training opportunities has been particularly clear in relation to the development of digital skills.
Secondly, pre-COVID, manufacturing was facing a series of interlinked challenges and opportunities, including accelerating the pace of digitalisation and the transformation to a cleaner, more sustainable ‘net zero’ economy.
These underlying transformations are still underway, and some of the ways in which firms have been forced to respond to the crisis are actually supporting the achievement of these goals.
For example, the need for social distancing, ‘no touch’, and remote working has forced an acceleration in the adoption of digital and automation technologies. The need to limit product ranges has resulted in simpler, cleaner, less energy-consuming operations that still meet the bulk of customer requirements.
If firms can draw upon their own creative approaches, and those of others, in responding to the crisis, these can provide valuable ways to rethink approaches to both managing existing activities but also seizing new opportunities.
Finally, COVID has raised the profile of manufacturing and illustrated two key things: firstly, that the UK manufacturing community is an extraordinary asset for the British economy.
The diverse ways in which this community has responded to the numerous challenges posed by COVID is awe-inspiring. The example of VentilatorChallengeUK and the hundreds of examples of rapid repurposing of manufacturing to address the needs of the healthcare system illustrate this very clearly.
Secondly, the COVID crisis has revealed the need for increased resilience and flexibility in our supply chains across multiple sectors. Both these issues provide an opportunity that all manufacturing firms can support. We all need to continually demonstrate the importance and value of manufacturing to as wide an audience as possible.
Manufacturing can be the answer to multiple national and regional, economic and social challenges. But it can only fulfil this promise if we all actively promote the great work that is being done and engage with the debate about how manufacturing can be strengthened to support a cleaner, more resilient and more regionally equitable economy.