The COVID-19 pandemic is having a dramatic effect on the manufacturing sector, although its immediate impacts have varied widely. Some manufacturers are massively increasing production, some are re-purposing their plants to meet new demands or opportunities. Others are having to prioritise for survival and damage limitation, furloughing or even laying off staff as production is halted.The COVID crisis has also highlighted the reliance of manufacturers on their supply chains. Very few companies can afford fully integrated vertical manufacturing, so most run stress tests and disaster scenarios to assess resilience. Very few envisioned the full impact of the virus.

The most painful illustration of this has been the UK’s well-publicised inability to procure – let alone produce – sufficient quantities of good quality PPE to support front-line workers in the NHS and care sectors.Shortages of basic items like toilet rolls and flour, prompted by massive spikes in demand as people panic-bought and stockpiled, provided more evidence that our manufacturing sector is not yet sufficiently agile to cope with a rapidly changing world. Where capacity largely exists, it is constrained by stubborn bottlenecks.

Take a deep breath

There is an urgent need for change, and the UK Government’s Ventilator Challenge demonstrates what can be achieved in an incredibly short space of time.In a matter of days, it required designers to meet strict regulatory requirements in a complex, high dependency, medical device.What lessons can the manufacturing sector learn from this experience?

  • Establish the brief: the better the brief the better the outcome.Extending the brief after work started on the Ventilator Challenge delayed the outcome, sometimes forcing design teams to return right back to the very beginning.
  • Team collaboration: while commercial goals may not create the same imperative as an impending NHS disaster, manufacturers can consider the parallels in creating a common sense of purpose and a determination to succeed.
  • Effective project management: essential for translating the brief into team actions. Agile sprints and scrums with cycle times in hours became the norm, bringing together all stakeholders, including suppliers, to determine the best way forward.
  • Breaking down silos: creating flexibility within teams enables those with the most experience to be more hands-on, applying their exceptional skills (the very reason they were made managers in the first place) directly to the task.This encourages others and creates a ‘dream team’ ethos.
  • Use online tools: adopting virtual meeting and project management tools like MS Teams enables the storage and real-time sharing of critical data as well as the ability to conduct meetings throughout the project duration.Teams working in shifts on the Challenge could continue to drive developments 24/7.
  • Accelerate automation plans. Manual assembly is highly flexible, but fully automated, local plants will be a far more effective long-term solution to deliver the required quantities at the right price, quality and speed.

The new normal

The good news is that the means to effect permanent manufacturing change has been around for some time. Anyone who has followed the changes wrought by Industry 4.0 will immediately see the parallels. Early involvement of the supply chain, collaborative working, the effective exchange and application of data, and improved levels of automation are not new concepts at all. Covid-19 gives us the key to turning them into reality.

Digitalisation enables automation, and automation provides resilience to disruption.Bringing processes and control closer to market needs further protects production.This will not just be ‘pandemic proof’ production: it will increase output agility and protect organisations from single source of supply bottlenecks.

The bottom line is that scenarios are being rewritten rapidly, so we need to accelerate our manufacturing response. In many cases the plans were already there, but the imperative to implement them was lacking. The current crisis will boost digitalisation investment, powering change.We can, and must, work smarter in future to make manufacturing fit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.