The world is currently in a state of confusion as the COVID-19 pandemic exerts its influence across all aspects of industry and manufacturing globally. In manufacturing we have seen the effects of the pandemic become clear, very quickly, with a host of changes in the way things are being managed and executed. Going forward the question is how will manufacturing organisations handle the crisis in the short term and get back to innovating in the long term?

In manufacturing the problem is more difficult than for other areas of business. For example, in commercial areas of business the enforced shut-down of offices means that things slow down and become more complex, but they can continue. In manufacturing, machine operators mostly need to be at the machine location, which for many has resulted in production stopping.

In the short term, there has been no option but for many manufacturing businesses to stop production, and the knock-on effect has been quickly felt with the supply chains breaking down very quickly. Many companies have faced up to 100% of staff no longer being able to attend work. Automation will need to become more commonplace, and undoubtedly there will be companies looking at the introduction of remote operation of automated machinery. One area that has been exposed is the current reliance on traditional supply chain methods. One outbreak of a restrictive virus has shown even if contained, it can bring the rest of the world’s manufacturing industry to a halt. This is the main area of concentration for those planning for the future of the advanced manufacturing industry.

The continuing coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated the double-edged sword that global supply chains can represent for manufacturers and consumers. The supply chain can be highly intricate, leaving little room for resilience in the face of critical disruptions such as those caused by COVID-19. As manufacturers look to recover from the spread of COVID-19; the quarantines, travel restrictions, production of goods being delayed as supply chains are interrupted on multiple occasions before reaching their final destination because of varied closures or restrictions causing delays in manufacturing and distribution.

As the restrictions continue, manufacturers are identifying their key vulnerabilities, and taking steps to plan for the future. Businesses who have the ability to reimagine the operating models will find the future opportunities. Those that shape and benefit from the future will be the business that can imagine it and implement the right strategies

As a result of COVID-19 we will see redesigned manufacturing environments with fewer workers spending less time collaboratively due to the physical-distancing requirements. This will create a need for individual employees to be more flexible. This is creating a transformational opportunity to advance productivity initiatives that would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the year due to cost, union objections and technology barriers. As a result, there will be a huge increase in the adoption of ‘connected worker’ initiatives with a renewed passion for right first-time boosting productivity numbers and empowering employees to execute tasks beyond their usual mandate. We will see greater interest and levels of activity, diving deep into manufacturing data to identify areas of improvement and advancement. I think after our experience of COVID-19, the manufacturing industry will be more data driven and conscious, driving smarter and greater integrated workflows than ever before.

The impact of COVID-19 will bring a move to virtual and online workforce and tools. Manufacturers have been challenged trying to capture todays ageing workforce’s expert knowledge in a format that the younger generation can access to learn and increase their skills. This crisis has pushed everyone to use online virtual tools, so adoption will have greater acceptability because people have personally seen how ‘virtual’ workspaces actually work during this crisis and lockdown.

As great many manufacturers are having to curtail the number of employees working in a plant and are finding creative ways to remain productive. Many are sending teams of engineering, design, quality and HR teams, working from home while at the same time rotating shifts to create social distancing. These actions are bringing visibility to cost savings while maintaining productivity. Going forward, organisations will adopt many of these remote-working strategies to reduce costs, improve productivity, and increase worker satisfaction and profitability. For how long have we heard that robots are going to take over those jobs? We all know robots and automation alone aren’t saving the day right now. In manufacturing, the silver lining of COVID-19 is that there will be increased commitment to real-time communication within the production-line, robots aren’t saving the day right now, but they have a real place to play in the virtual distance online manufacturing of the future.

Many manufacturers are increasing efforts to equip their human workers with digital connected-worker tools allowing collaboration with colleagues and interaction with control of production. This is also the dawn of a new era where ‘frontline’ workers and desk workers are harmonized with tools that can support the flow of collaboration and harnessing data, where something that happens on the factory floor initiates a communication or workflow in the back office which can be viewed by the virtual operator allowing quick real-time corrections to be made. Through the concept of using connected-worker technology to empower workers, delivering improved quality and productivity, will allow us to build business resiliency after COVID-19 has passed. Digital learning will become more commonplace within the workplace.

I believe there will be a resurgence of reshoring and new investment in the manufacturing infrastructure by governments through tax breaks in support of reshoring and people development. Executives, engineers, quality personnel and operators may be in their homes with the ability to log into and see and control how all automated lines are performing down to individual components on the machines, that may be showing signs of failure triggering planned stoppages for maintenance delivering a reduction in waste and substandard quality. Bottom line, Industry 4.0 is not all hype, there is real value that companies, now more than ever, can and must realise.

If you had to pick an area that will yield the greatest return on investment for your time and money, without a doubt it would be the 3P’s people, product which delivers profit. Investing in your people will lead to you having an engaged team which will lead to a culture of innovation. Ultimately, this will help establish your company’s winning equation. In a world of rapid change, your greatest competitive advantage is your own core, your people, their understanding of your business and their vision of your manufacturing processes and the answer to the future deliverables of your business to meet customer needs. Your team will be lean but still composed of people with the capabilities and resources necessary to succeed while working remotely from the production line.

A well trained and developed workforce have a vested interest in the success of our company. Remember, business is nothing more than the sum of your people, so invest time and money in them. Developed and skilled people who are empowered create value where there was none before. They will instill processes that will grow your company, implementing continuous improvements, reduce costs and improve product performance.  You need to develop your employees so they are smart enough and capable enough to visualise what the data being generated is telling the company, how to mine for the data and how to use that data to make that leap to visualise when and where to introduce technology, to best support product cost advantage, delivering the most satisfying product for the customer and revenues and profits for your business.

All company’s need to stop looking at employees as a cost center and understand they are really an investment and training them is an investment that will pay dividends in the future. The changing environment demands a shift to modern learning, and employers will need to meet the needs of continual learning across the workforce, which will lead to greater understanding of your processes resulting in better interpretation of data and hence vision of physical asset development which results in better and more advanced ways of production through innovation.

It’s important to involve all employees in learning in order to build a culture of learning. Employers will need to help employees reskill to match the new jobs that will appear following rollout of developed innovations within the production process allowing employees to re-deploy in new or more advanced areas that are being developed. Cost cannot be allowed to be the excuse for not training employees. The reality is that today anybody can learn any topic, from any device, anywhere in the world at low to no cost. It’s more about encouraging and allowing employees to spend time learning how to interrogate your present production methods, how to mine the data and then inter-operate what the data is telling them, to allow them to visualize improvements and advancements in the manufacturing process.

Measuring your return on investment in training and development of employees, hinges on employers changing the way they think about employees versus the return on investment they look at in relation to other physical assets. You need to look to write it off over future years. For example, in TSP Engineering we enter a contract with the employee which ties them to remaining with the company for three years following completion of their training / academic achievement. If they leave, they are required to pay back to the company the cost of the training fees along with any salary they received while they were off the job training, leave for collage or study and exam leave for example. The amount required to be paid back reduces over the three years following completion of training and development. During the period following the completion of the original training we encourage the employee to take further advanced training and development increasing their value to the business and tying them further to the business. This makes your investment less vulnerable to staff members leaving the business, while there’s no way to prevent attrition, learning will boost engagement and loyalty and deliver returns across your entire organization advancing your manufacturing capability and your IP.

The above needs little explaining, when you have people who are engaged and motivated, they will continue to improve the product and profit will follow. They will be hungry to inter-operate the data within your business to drive automation where it will best deliver for your business reducing costs and improving product performance which will answer customer’s needs raising the profile of your company and brand which will result in profits and growth.

From a business delivering years of losses we are now a very profitable heavy engineering business having received in excess of 14 business awards in the past 4 years with 7 of our employees being named in the UK’s top 100 manufacturing personnel over the past 3 years. With 2 of them being named as exemplars for the work they have done. We now have customers in the steel processing industry, Civil and Defence Nuclear sectors and wave and ocean power generation sector.

Develop your people, they will enhance your products and processes and deliver profits to your business.