How is Engineering & Manufacturing dealing with COVID-19 and what does the future hold? We are interested in how our customers and suppliers in the engineering, manufacturing and related areas are responding to the short term challenges. And how they believe things will pan out in the longer term.
The Early Days
Network Infrastructure specialists Data Techniques told us many smaller projects were shelved when lockdown started and the company furloughed 300 people. But now they are returning to work on a major project using components from JET PRESS.
Other companies kept some or all of their team working, but with many measures in place to protect staff wherever possible. Formaplex made safety their priority and took measures typical of the industry; introducing one way systems, screened working zones and provision of PPE along with many other measures. They also introduced cycle to work schemes so employees can avoid public transport.
Acres Engineering took similar measures including staff health checks, split shifts and segregation of welfare facilities. They also designed and produced Covid safety products including safety screens and footles, a foot operated door handle. They set up an online shop to sell this and a range of other items. But, as Luke Parker MD of Acres says, it was a lot of extra effort with little additional revenue. But these activities allowed Acres to continue trading and have positioned Acres well for future growth.
Leading drawer slide manufacturer Accuride pride themselves in being forward thinking and flexible. They have not furloughed staff and in the UK they have introduced time accounts for staff so they can work in a more flexible way. Helle Kinning the EMEA Marketing Manager says the company has made good use of video to collaborate and people are more willing to talk on the phone. However, product training by video is a challenge.
Laurent Tremolieres, Accuride Chief Operating Officer has noted better communication globally during the COVID situation. He also believes people are writing more clearly when they cannot talk face to face. He also believes the relatively flat management structure already introduced at Accuride has allowed the company to respond quickly and effectively to a once in a lifetime situation.
Winners as well as losers
Kevin Parr, Furniture Sales Lead, says JET PRESS are selling more furniture assembly parts than usual because many manufacturers have full order books. And we are pulling out all the stops to meet demand for Accuride Drawer Slides for FabworkX, the home of Rock N Roll Bedz. These beds are used in motor homes, a sector where demand is going through the roof.
Of course most motor home buyers will be holiday makers who want to avoid crowded planes and trains. But there is evidence that workers like maintenance and installation crews who have to work away from home are keen to avoid staying in hotels and B&Bs, so they may be adding to the demand for motor homes.
Getting to work
People who have to get to work are looking for ways to avoid public transport. Cycling is a good alternative for many. Demand is high for bikes and all the parts that go into making them. Electric bikes are particularly in demand among the new two wheel commuters and electric scooters are increasing in popularity.
Since the easing of lockdown demand in the automotive industry has been uneven. In July new car registrations rose by 11.3%, though demand is still down -41.9% over the year. And only 328 buses and coaches joined the road in Quarter 2 of 2020.
There is some debate about the used car market. There are reports that people are buying cheap used cars to avoid using public transport. This could lead to a demand for parts for older cars, many of which are made by the JET PRESS manufacturing facility in Aylesbury.
The PPE market
Demand for some other items has also grown hugely. Before the COVID situation we only sold a few Self-Piercing Snap Rivets each month. Now, with the demand for face masks rocketing we are shipping tens of thousands every month. The same applies to the Mini Rivets used in face visors.
We supply a wide range of other fasteners and hardware that is used in PPE and other medical applications. Webbing, Hook and Loop tape, and DOT Fasteners are widely used in PPE and other medical applications. Our customers use hardware including Camloc Gas Struts, Accuride Drawer Slides and all sorts of Cable, Pipe and Hose Fasteners in medical environments.
Ways of working
Another feature of work since March is that some companies in Engineering & Manufacturing have had time to think about how they work. Andrew Barker of rubber and plastic moulding specialists Burnetts says they have made improvements. With fewer people in work, they have been able to look at layouts, workflow and work stations and make them more efficient.
The LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index for the UK shows that people in the Engineering & Manufacturing sector feel more confident about their future than many other sectors. Those with the job function Engineering have an index of 20. This is only five points below the most confident job function, Finance.
Manufacturing from Home?
It’s not hard to see how companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter can allow staff to work from home indefinitely. Yet, the largest industrial manufacturing company in Europe, Siemens, has also announced that mobile working will be a permanent feature of the way they work. This will allow many employees to work from home, or wherever suits them, for several days a week where practical.
Andrew Barker of Burnetts says fewer people working on site has been an eye-opener. He says having fewer people has led to more focus. And the productivity of their people working from home has been very good.
Is this the next normal for everyone?
The factory has always been at the heart of manufacturing and engineering. But whereas thousands of people flocked to a factory every day during the first Industrial Revolution an Industry 4.0 factory needs relatively few people. In fact the actual making of things may require fewer people than all the processes around Engineering & Manufacturing; from finance to design. And these jobs can be done without being in a factory, at least not all of the time.
But what about the magic cup of tea?
We work with engineers and designers to solve problems. This is a collaborative and creative process and working alone is not the best way to come up with innovations. Danny McGee and Alan Pardoe talking at the Manufacturing Technology Center (MTC) in Coventry expressed concern about losing the sort of random interactions that can lead to rapid progress.
For instance, at the start of the COVID outbreak the need to protect front line workers from exposure to infection was identified. Danny set to work with a plastic box and an electric saw to make the first version of an Aerosol Generating Protection (AGP) Shield. And he made the first one overnight. By the end of the week, working with others at MTC, there was a working prototype. Would this have been possible working over Zoom?
The concern is that without corridor conversations and coffee machine collaborations, innovation simply won’t happen. Footfall for the MTC in 2019 was over 30,000. It will be a fraction of that for 2020.
But engineers and designers are all about problem solving and innovation. So we are confident they will find ways to create a virtual cup of tea that brings people – and ideas – together.
The Potential Upsides of the Next Normal
Based on what we have learned over the last few months there are some changes that seem very likely. Let’s take a look at some of them and try to identify the impact they will have on Engineering & Manufacturing.
Travel will change
Whatever the distance or the reason for travel it seems likely things will change forever.
Most short to medium journeys are people travelling to work, school or to the shops. On the one hand more flexible working may result in fewer journeys to work. But on the other hand, with many people unwilling to get on crowed public transport, a greater proportion of people will cycle or drive.
This is a complicated situation for the automotive industry. Will there be an increasing market for spares to keep the older cars on the road? Will demand shift away from SUVs to more economical and greener vehicles? Or will the car market move back to where it was in 2019?
Air travel has dramatically reduced. This means investment in new aircraft by the airlines in the short term is unlikely. Some forecasters believe flight patterns will return to 2019 levels in two to three years others are less optimistic.
Professor for Advanced Manufacturing at the University of Central Lancashire, Frank Hayden, believes the impact will be similar to the situation following 9/11, with many older planes being scrapped. This presents an opportunity for the two main players, Boeing and Airbus, to sell more fuel efficient aircraft to the airlines in the future. But when the airlines will be in a position to invest is not clear.
Will we be flying in electric aircraft across the Atlantic soon? Probably not. The challenge hinges on the issue of power density. Currently 1,000 kg of aviation fuel produces more than 10 times as much energy as a 1,000kg battery. And once the energy from the aviation fuel is used the weight of the fuel has gone.
But, there are already battery powered light aircraft than can fly for an hour. And the industry is working on hybrid-electric propulsion systems that could make 3 hour flights in passenger aircraft a reality before long.
Companies will change
Companies with better IT, flatter structures and a positive company culture seem to have coped better and are poised to come out of this situation more strongly. The IT element needs little explanation. If IT systems are cloud based then access is easier for staff who are not in the office – as long as they have good connectivity.
And the companies who were quick to adopt technologies like Zoom, MS Teams and other collaborative systems have kept in touch with customers and their own teams. Flatter structures and trust between companies and their people mean teams can get on with projects without constant reporting to the boss. Accuride and Acres Engineering are good examples.
The ability and willingness to use technology instead of face to face meetings has been positive in some circumstances. For instance, Acres Engineering have used MS Teams to involve clients in Design Reviews and Project Meetings more often now than before the COVID situation. They have also introduced online morning meetings and afternoon huddles to keep staff engaged and have seen productivity improvements from people working from home.
While some people are hoping for a return to normal, others argue COVID-19 has brought forward some much needed changes.
For most designers, manufactures and engineers the last few months have thrown up many challenges. Some people have had to radically rethink their businesses. Our experience working with engineers, designers and makers is that they are creative and resourceful. We are already seeing our suppliers and customers making changes that will make them stronger in the future. If there is anything we at JET PRESS can do to help please get in touch. Please call +44 1623 551 800 email [email protected] or contact us online.