RS Components: How an essential business survives and thrives in adversity
31 July 2020
DPA speaks to Pete Malpas, Managing Director, Northern Europe (UK, Ireland & Scandinavia) at RS Components to learn more about how the company has dealt with the challenges posed by COVID-19, its contribution to the Ventilator Challenge and what he believes will be the impact of the pandemic on industry in the long-term.
How has RS Components responded to the pandemic?
Although the company had put in place very comprehensive continuity plans, the devastation wrought by the pandemic was unprecedented and took even the best-prepared businesses by surprise – RS Components included.
Nonetheless, we were proactive in ensuring operations ran as smoothly as they could. We were quick to mobilise as many employees as possible to work remotely, putting in place IT systems to ensure they could do so efficiently and effectively.
Being a digital-orientated business has also helped us to keep operations running. We have seen a significant surge of new customers browsing our website – there has been an uptake of 20,000 new customers on a monthly basis.
Additionally, our supply chain team has been working around the clock with our partners to make sure we could maintain a continuity of supply.
We’d taken steps throughout 2019, because of the uncertainty with Brexit, to increment our inventory and buffer any eventuality that came with that. It would be remiss of me to say that there have not been challenges in some areas of the supply chain but generally, we’ve weathered the storm well.
What social distancing measures did you put in place when the lockdown was first announced?
It was paramount for us to protect our operational team, in particular, as many of our customers are providing critical equipment in essential sectors such as food and beverage, pharmaceutical and the public sector.
We not only isolated the operational team, but we also took many measures within the operational sector to make sure social distancing was observed.
We also implemented alternate packing stations, hand sanitiser, separate entrances and exits, as well as changing the traditional three-shift system to ensure that there was no crossover.
The employees who could not work remotely were also rewarded with an attendance allowance in recognition of the fact that whilst RS Components was doing everything it possibly could, there was still a risk. This was appreciated and seemed to be accepted very well by people.
Which of your products has been the most in-demand during this period?
Unsurprisingly, there has been a surge in demand for PPE products, as well as ‘back to work kits’, including 2m floor signs, barriers and hand sanitisers.
There has also been an uptake in tools and general maintenance products as traditional routes to market have been closed and customers have moved to digital channels to get products.
DesignSpark is a great place for your customers and like-minded engineers to share ideas and projects. What role has the community played during the pandemic?
RS set up an online COVID-19 response centre for members of the community to share their designs for critical equipment such as respirator valves, face masks and ventilators.
As students and engineers have been at home, we have seen an uptake in people signing up for DesignSpark – up about 20% during the last couple of months. We now have about a million members globally.
We’ve also launched some new competitions around engineering ideas and community-designed challenges to capitalise upon this momentum to promote the ideas of young people in engineering.
Can you talk a bit more about your work with the Ventilator Challenge and the National 3D Printing Society to deliver PPE to the NHS?
When we were heading into the pandemic, the government recognised that there might be a shortage of ventilators and there was a campaign for businesses to help. In the UK alone, almost 15,000 companies offered their assistance.
Some of these businesses were turning their hand to something completely different and to see the pace at which they could develop credible solutions was brilliant. Many, many companies were working around the clock because everyone was trying to make a difference.
We are continuing to provide support for makers, manufacturers and engineers around the world. RS has collated four supplier solutions from Maxim, Microchip, STMicroelectronics and Renesas and made them available through a dedicated Ventilator Solutions landing page for anyone looking to build their own ventilators.
The National 3D Printing Society (N3DPS) was a slightly different initiative, though it was part of the same cry for help around PPE. 3D printing is a technology in which RS has been active for several years. We rallied our DesignSpark engineering community and embarked on a partnership with the N3DPS in the UK to enable frontline health workers to access vital PPE quickly. This UK campaign, which has now officially drawn to a close, was done via a 3D printing farm at our Corby headquarters where a team would print the visors and then donate filament to other manufacturers within the society. When we started the work back in April, more than 1,500 people volunteered their 3D printers to produce these visors. Fellow Northamptonshire company, igus, was responsible for assembling the face visors, with staff volunteering their time to add the plastic sheets to the community printed frames for distribution. Part of the company’s Northampton facility was quickly repurposed as an emergency production line which, at the peak, was turning out 1000 pieces of PPE per day.
What changes did you make to your delivery service? Did you still offer next-day delivery?
Due to severe lockdowns and restrictions, there have been a small number of geographical pockets outside the UK where a typical ‘next-day delivery’ has become a 48-hour service temporarily and we couldn’t always guarantee pre-9am deliveries. However, we have been proactive in putting service messages on our website every couple of days to notify customers of any changes and overall – particularly in the UK – there has not been a material difference. The delivery service is now generally back to normal worldwide.
Have all RS locals remained open?
When the country first went into lockdown, we decided to close our showrooms but still provided a click-and-collect service for essential workers from each of our 16 local branches, which have stayed open throughout. Now that the lockdown is being lifted, we have re-opened the showrooms, with social distancing measures still in place.
The last time we spoke, we were talking about your five-year plan for RS. What impact has COVID-19 had on your ability to achieve this?
If you talk to our CEO, Lindsley Ruth, he will say, “Our five-year plan hasn’t changed, we’ve just got to do it in four years!” There is an element of truth in this statement, though. The pandemic has actually accelerated some of the programmes on which RS was working, such as digital transformation, and these will likely come to fruition more quickly because there is a higher demand from customers.
Do you think the pandemic is going to affect the way your business is run in the long term?
RS hopes to introduce a degree of flexibility to the way people work. I don’t think working at home all the time is necessarily a healthy situation for everyone but, equally, I don’t think we will go back to where we were when everyone had to report to the office at a certain time.
During the lockdown, we have increasingly used various digital tools to share content, material and updates with customers. Although the external sales team will reinstate face-to-face contact with its customers in the future, I believe that the role will change quite significantly to incorporate these digital tools as a result of the pandemic.
Since COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of STEM, do you think that more young people will be inspired to get involved and help to close the skills gap?
The very high publicity around manufacturing ventilators cannot fail to raise the profile of engineering. We’re certainly seeing a very high level of interest.
There is an increased number of people doing coding, programming and building technology from home – and even buying Raspberry Pis for their children.
I would hope that it inspires a generation of people to look at technology in its broadest sense and realise how important it is for all of us.
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