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What COVID-19 has shown us about industrial adaptability and pivoting

13 July 2020

Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the global COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic in March 2020, the world’s response has changed the face of industry. Industrial businesses reacted in numerous ways, and there are lessons to be learned by looking at these responses. Here, George Walker, Managing Director of Novotek UK and Ireland, asks: what has industry done to change for the better in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?

There can be no underestimating the scale of COVID-19’s impact on almost every industry, especially manufacturing. Industrial businesses have seen significant disruptions to global supply chains, an overall fall in demand, the unfortunate furloughing of workforces and the closure of facilities across the country.

This has, of course, culminated in several notable contractions of the UK’s manufacturing output, according to figures presented by the IHS Markit and CIPS UK Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index from March to May 2020. This was one of many contributing factors to the UK’s overall gross domestic product (GDP) shrinking by one-fifth in April 2020 alone.

In unprecedented times of uncertainty such as these, it becomes important to focus on recovering from the uncertainty. To prepare industry for what comes next, we should look instead to the positives to have emerged from the current situation. 

Although the figures paint a picture of an industry in decline, we have seen a remarkably positive trend in UK manufacturing: rapid adaptability. This trend can be observed by looking to some of the companies that have been able to respond quickly and fluidly to the changing global situation.

For example, there is the case of London-headquartered global chemical company INEOS. The company already produced isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and ethanol – two of the core ingredients of hand sanitiser – in its factory in Grangemouth, Scotland. 

As the outbreak took hold and Europe encountered a shortage of hand sanitisers, INEOS built a new factory in Middlesbrough and kickstarted production of one million sanitisers per month. INEOS achieved this within 10 days and restructured its distribution by partnering with its own sponsored cycling team, Team INEOS, to support free distribution of the sanitiser to hospitals.

There is also the rapid adaption of the automotive industry, where manufacturers have shifted gears from vehicles and parts to ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical professionals. 

Rolls-Royce and Ford are two manufacturers among many that have joined the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium of industrial businesses repurposing their plants to manufacture ventilators. 

Similarly, Jaguar Land Rover has repurposed its Advanced Product Creation Centre to a medical visor production facility. The company also plans to make its open source computer-assisted design (CAD) files available to additive manufacturers, further supporting the continued effort to increase PPE production. 

From Novotek’s experience working with businesses from across the broad spectrum of industrial sectors, it has consistently encountered a perceived need for industrial reinvigoration. In the face of this pandemic, it seems manufacturers have achieved this by adapting quickly, collaborating with one another and diversifying their supply chains.

The key to achieving this has been the resources available to realise a sudden change in design, material requirements and production practices. Tools and technologies like effective control systems, modern manufacturing execution systems (MESs) and modular automation hardware no doubt supported these pivots in production.

These systems will remain crucial in the months ahead. With the prospect of diversifying supply chains and managing large scale industrial operations, for example, industrial applications will be key to success. Engineers, managers and teams across a company can create applications that provide insight into data from numerous input systems, providing timely, valuable information. 

The application platform simply performs calculations and analyses on aggregated data to produce the actionable insight needed for decision-making on scale. The key here is to choose a platform that is easy to deploy and supports intuitive application development, such as the industrial platforms offered by Novotek UK and Ireland.

COVID-19 has been, and continues to be, a testing time for many industries, businesses and people alike. However, it has demonstrated the latent potential and power still possessed by manufacturing in the UK and Ireland. If we can do it in a hurry now, we can do it again when the pandemic passes – at which point, it can lead to the prosperous, reinvigorated manufacturing industry we all want.


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