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Making the Lessons from COVID-19 a Catalyst for Lasting Change in UK Manufacturing

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Often, it’s in times of adversity that we see the greatest shows of strength. Despite the difficult and uncertain environment that’s emerged from this year’s events, I’ve been encouraged to see British manufacturing step up to face the challenges head-on and display great entrepreneurial spirit.

As some form of normality returns to the economy and to our everyday lives, the priority for the country’s manufacturing leaders now is to reflect on the learnings of recent months and use them as a catalyst to make lasting change for their business.


A Catalyst for Change

The interplay between advances in technology and the impact on business operations has been a constant through the years. What’s perhaps less obvious is that sometimes the technology can exist for years before businesses find a clear and valuable application. We’ve observed this in recent months with the uptake of video conference and team messaging software, not just as a way of staying connected on work projects, but also for relationship-building and boosting team morale.

These capabilities have existed for more than a decade, yet it’s only in a time of necessity that behaviours have shifted towards fully embracing such applications.

And it’s not just communications technologies that have taken a big step forward in adoption. The pandemic has opened management’s eyes as to how much more efficient they and their teams can be by utilising the latest technology, and has prompted greater consideration of how much of this change will stick post-COVID-19.

I’ve noted several areas where changes in operations have made a considerable business impact and give us some indication of the forces that can help shape the future of UK manufacturing:


1. Better Use of Human Capital

The pandemic has highlighted that while people can’t always be physically present on site, it’s still vital to be able to access knowledge and skills as and when they’re required. Technologies such as Vuforia Chalk ­– a remote support and guidance application – remote teaming and additive manufacturing process tools have helped manufacturers to maintain operations and produce essential items at scale in order to help keep the country running.

As social distancing considerations remain and key personnel, such as engineers with specific or in-demand skills, think twice about travelling vast distances, being able to capture and apply their expert knowledge is hugely important.


2. More Efficient and Robust Supply Chain and Production Operations

The uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation has highlighted the need to have visibility across the supply chain. Additionally, the ability to deliver under difficult situations has been an opportunity for strong suppliers to really shine.

For businesses that ran into difficulties, either within their factories or across their supply chain, the sentiment among customers and shareholders has typically been one of understanding. However, if we encounter a similar situation in future and such manufacturers aren’t well-enough prepared to act, it’ll open questions around why they didn’t have proper business continuity and risk mitigation procedures in place.

Having transparency end to end, right down to the component level will be critical to capabilities going forward.


3. Exploring New Technological Capabilities to Improve Speed and Agility

One of the benefits to come out of the COVID-19 situation has been to highlight the power of speed and flexibility. Manufacturers need to be able to adapt to challenging situations, whether the constraints are health, geopolitics, or any other black swan event, and switch production to where it’s needed most.

The situation of recent months has opened people’s minds to the availability of connected technologies, such as augmented reality (AR), smart glasses and remote support, that can be used to enhance their production processes. These technologies can typically be installed as part of their systems, as a separate layer to their operational equipment, allowing them to be used in a more intelligent and cost-effective manner.

Technologies that enable manufacturers to access real-time information from remote locations and make decisions on how to apply their resources weren’t possible five or ten years ago, but they are now, and it’s been under challenging circumstances that their value has really been shown.


A Stronger Future

For a long time, digitisation was viewed as something in the distance that businesses should be working towards. Post-COVID-19, it’s going to be seen as more of a necessity. The challenges of recent months have opened manufacturers’ eyes to automation and digitisation as key drivers for their particular business and their approach to transformation.

Working with a company like Rockwell Automation can help you define your more urgent needs and shape your technology to support those capabilities.

As we move out of lockdown, no one knows what lies in the future. But, as a manufacturing country, the UK is well placed to deal with uncertainty if we learn from the COVID-19 experience to create lasting change that will set us up for a more robust future.

Discover more on this topic, and about the power and potential flexible manufacturing can bring to your business, at the Management Perspectives Hub.

Phil Hadfield
Phil Hadfield
UK Country Director, Rockwell Automation
Phil joined Rockwell Automation in 2005 and has over 20 years of automation sales experience in multiple industries. He oversees the continued growth of Rockwell Automation products, solutions and services in the UK, and leads the continued expansion of The Connected Enterprise principles that help customers expand human possibility in the era of Industry 4.0. A registered STEM ambassador, Phil is passionate about enthusing the next generation of engineers, and has recently been engaged across EMEA in a strategic role relating to the company’s investment into PTC.

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