Since the emergence of Covid-19, RS Components has been supporting efforts to tackle the impact of the virus on multiple fronts – safeguarding the health and wellbeing of its own employees, helping to maintain critical supply chains, and assisting the national effort to produce medical and protective equipment.
The business is one of the world’s largest distributors of industrial and electronic goods, stocking more than 500,000 products, sourced from over 2,500 suppliers, and serving in excess of 1 million customers across 32 countries.
Jonny Williamson caught up with Pete Malpas, Managing Director for Northern Europe, and Sue Coenen, Vice President of Supply Chain Operations for Northern Europe, to learn more.
Pete Malpas: Our number one priority is the health and wellbeing of our people. We operate two distribution centres (DCs) in Northern Europe – Corby (Northamptonshire) and Nuneaton (Warwickshire), and it was critical for us to keep them protected and not compromise our performance for customers.
Our first action, therefore, was to relocate all UK office teams to work from home, which was just over 1,500 people.
Some, like me, are fortunate to have mobile IT, others have office-based IT technology, all of which had to be migrated to a VPN network. Our IT colleagues did a fantastic job in an incredibly difficult situation in terms of making that change and supporting everybody through it.
It was a tremendous success and enabled us to maintain a certain degree of ‘business as usual’ while keeping people away from the operations side of the business. Sue and her colleagues had their own challenges to deal with, so it was important we weren’t making a tough situation tougher by adding additional risk.
This global pandemic has brought our global organisation so much closer together on just about every level. At one stage, we had some suspected cases in our Beauvais DC in France which meant the site had to close for a short period of time. As a result, it was switched into Sue and her team, who did a miraculous job, and the service was seamless.
Sue Coenen: Our IT system enables us to plant switch between Corby and Nuneaton, regardless of where the demand is coming from. The expansion of that technology to our other territories was a development that happened during Covid-19.
On a separate instance, Nuneaton also took on the work of our DC in Milan because it was located right in the hot zone and had to be closed by order of the Italian government.
Nuneaton became the focal point for our UK, Italian and French operations, and that international collaboration illustrates how amazing our IT team has been.
Jonny Williamson: With one group working from home and another working in the DCs, how did you mitigate the risk of creating a culture of ‘us and them’?
Sue: We reinforced the importance of social distancing and how important it was to keep those working from home safe because it enabled continuity of the business. It also added to the safety of those working in the DCs because we effectively made them no-go areas for anyone other than those who work there.
We referenced Public Health England and the WHO for the guidelines we implemented, and we had one person responsible for going through that material daily with updates then circulated across the management team. We immediately reorganised all the workstations and communal areas to adhere to meet safety requirements.
We cut everyone’s working day by one hour without affecting any of their benefits to ensure each shift was segregated and reduce the risk of cross-contamination. We also made it the operator’s responsibility to keep their workstation clean for the next person at the end of shift.
Thanks to plant switch technology, Nuneaton became the focal point for UK, Italian and French operations – image courtesy of RS Components.
We familiarised people with the symptoms, and the board took the decision very early on that anyone who had, or felt they had, symptoms should immediately self-isolate and that they would continue to be paid and not suffer any detriment as a result. We also introduced a bonus scheme for our onsite workers to recognise the additional risk they faced.
Pete: Some of our largest customers are essential workers operating in the NHS, the Crown Commercial Service, food and drink, power generation and utilities, and we continually reinforced to our workers how what they were doing was supporting critical industries. Particularly when they were picking products all through the night and weekend to support ventilator projects, for example.
There was an incredible team spirit across the organisation and a sense that everyone was making a difference and playing an important part in something bigger than them, bigger than RS Components, and in many cases, helping to save lives.
The decision we made to furlough people was a very tough decision and people respected what we were doing, but many people didn’t want to be even though they were furloughed on 100% pay. Furthermore, we made the decision not to claim the furlough money from the government because corporate social responsibility is something we take very seriously.
This article first appeared in the July/August issue of The Manufacturer. Click here to subscribe
At the same time as doing your usual activities, you’ve also been manufacturing much-needed PPE.
We made it critical that while they were furloughed, although they couldn’t do any work for us, they could have access to our learning and personal development resources. We built some specialist wellbeing websites for our people, which we decided to open up to the general public and other businesses, even competitors.
Pete: PPE in its standard sense, i.e. masks, respirators, gloves, safety boots, high-vis jackets, is something that we’ve been selling for a long time and was one of our fastest growing pre pandemic product segments.
At the same time, 3D printing is also a big – and growing – part of our business. So, we partnered with the UK’s National 3D Printing Society (N3DPS) to enable frontline health workers to quickly access vital PPE.
We donated 400kg of PLA filament to N3DPS from end-of-reelsupplies, enough to produce up to 20,000 visor frames, and we reached out through our DesignSpark engineering platform to the 930,000-strong DesignSpark community, urging members with access to a 3D printer to join the campaign to produce NHS-accepted protective visors.
We have also set-up a 3D printing farm in Corby which is producing more than 1,000 visors a week.
How have you seen your use of technology evolve as this crisis has developed?
Pete: The current crisis has forced a lot of businesses to accelerate their digital transformation. We’re fortunate that we’re ahead of the game in that regard; pre pandemic, more than 70% of our business was conducted digitally, with customers transacting with us through some form of e-procurement tool. So, already our customers are used to operating in a digital fashion.
The number one priority is the health and wellbeing of its people – image courtesy of RS Components.
Part of our journey to become a technology leader has been equipping our customer-facing organisations with sales enablement tools which actually help customers, be that sharing content and information digitally or running virtual training sessions and customer meetings. That’s really played in to the ‘Zoom’ culture that has exploded in recent months.
In February 2019, we acquired Monition, a UK-based pioneer in the design, development and application of reliability and conditio-nmonitoring systems. That probably didn’t fit with many people’s perception of what a catalogue bulk shifter did, but it was a core part of our digital transformation journey
We believe we can automate much more of the data collection and analysis and can use AI predictive analytics based on characteristics of performance to predict failure. Knowing when an item is going to fail before it actually does enables the system to create a work ticket, raise a purchase order, check the inventory and have it delivered, all with zero human involvement.
Interest has been really high so far and we’re currently working on a real-world proof of concept with a handful of customers. We should have exciting news to share soon.
How has the past six months changed your ways of working?
Pete: We’re continually reviewing our learnings as time progresses. We want to take the time to review what’s happened and retain what’s proven to be successful.
That could be the way in which people sit together and interact; it could also be keeping our approval levels as simple as possible to empower employees to make decisions. We’ve seen some of the barriers to execution and collaboration that are present in almost every large global corporate disappear, and we obviously want to make sure that those habits don’t reintroduce themselves.
Sue: We’ve seen that empowering people to make decisions significantly accelerates the decision-making process. As an example, we made two significant changes during this process within two weeks, that is unheard of and devolved decision-making played a key role.
How do you see the industrial landscape changing as a result of COVID-19?
Pete: While businesses are starting to ramp up activity, we’re still in quite a difficult economic situation, particularly in the UK. I believe we’re going to go through an uncertain period for 12 months or more, and key to adapting to, or even embracing, that disruption is accelerating the digitalisation of manufacturing and supply chains.
Also, I think the UK has under invested in manufacturing and over indexed on global supply chains; we’ve commoditised products too easily in the search for savings. Of course, we’ve got to be competitive, but there’s a growing realisation that we need more robust supply chains, more locally.
And while I’m not proposing everything should be reshored to the UK, I do sense an increased emphasis towards onshoring and manufacturing more locally, if not in the UK then Europe.
What does the future hold for RS Components?
Pete: We’ve seen record demand in utilities, food and drink, intralogistics, but that’s been offset by a reduction in automotive, steel and transportation, so overall, our UK volumes are slightly down. Though we’ve done some remarkable things, as have many businesses, it’s been tough and it’s going to remain tough for a while.
However, the future looks very bright for us because we are one of the biggest distributors of electronic and industrial consumable-type products globally. And yet, we’ve got a very small market share.
It’s a huge market that is very fragmented but steadily consolidating, and we are at the forefront of that from a digital, technology evolution, perspective. As our customers recognise the need to accelerate their digital agenda, that plays to the heart of what we stand for as a business.
Our value proposition going forward has three core strands: digital procurement solutions, digital inventory solutions, and digital maintenance and engineering solutions. Those play to global customer needs. It doesn’t matter if you’re in EMEA, America or APAC, our three regions, those drivers are going to be the same, and we’re in a great place to capitalise on that. That’s what makes me feel genuinely excited about the future.
*Header and un-credited image courtesy of Shutterstock