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OPINION: Manufacturers should 'reshore' and reinvent themselves post-Covid

Paul Haimes, European VP of technical sales at PTC

Digital manufacturing can play a key part in reshoring (Credit: PTC)
Digital manufacturing can play a key part in reshoring (Credit: PTC)

If there are any bright spots to be found in the current coronavirus crisis, the talent, resourcefulness and adaptability displayed by the UK manufacturing sector in recent months must surely stand out among them.

A brilliant case in point has been the swift and decisive action taken by participants in the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium. This initiative has seen employees at companies including Airbus, Ford, GKN Aerospace and Rolls-Royce working around the clock to produce thousands of additional ventilators for the hard-pressed NHS, and provide stricken patients with breathing support.

My own employer, PTC, is extremely proud to have worked as part of this consortium, providing augmented reality (AR) technology to capture the crucial assembly steps and processes involved in building rapidly-manufactured ventilator systems (RMVSs), and sharing them with workers in the factories of consortium partners who have never made ventilators before.

Elsewhere, we have seen other manufacturing companies answer the call for more protective equipment for frontline health workers. Businesses from agri-food producers to sportswear specialists have swiftly branched out into face masks, hand sanitiser and medical scrubs.

UK manufacturing has responded in a way of which we can all be proud – and which, in my view, should provide a powerful argument and momentum for the continued reshoring of manufacturing production.

Dealing with disruption

The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the fragility of outsourcing to offshore locations. While many UK manufacturers had already experienced quality issues and rising transport costs associated with outsourcing, the virus has wreaked havoc on extended supply chains. In the process, the risks of over-reliance on overseas supply of strategically critical components and parts have come into sharp focus.

At the same time, the Brexit threat hasn’t gone away. With the government adamant that it will not request an extension to the 31 December deadline, manufacturers continue to grapple with how their supply chains will need to change in the face of new tariffs, regulations and an unfamiliar trading environment.

The challenge now is for UK manufacturing companies to work out how to turn reshoring into a long-lasting and sustainable trend. In the short term, of course, their focus must be on employee health and safety, and preserving cashflow. But in preparation for a post-Covid world, manufacturers need to start planning for a fundamental transformation of industrial production based on digital technologies, which leverages the UK’s proven strengths as a global base of manufacturing skills and talent.

Digital reinvention

A successful reshoring strategy must be coupled with a digital manufacturing strategy. If the current pandemic has demonstrated anything, it is the power of digital technologies to keep companies productive, even in the worst of times.

Looking ahead, manufacturers must continue to deploy new technologies – the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), augmented reality and product lifecycle management, among others – to boost productivity and empower workers, to get the most from factory floor assets and to digitise product data for better post-sales service and support.

The attractiveness of outsourcing, based on lower cost labour in offshore locations, was already dwindling as wages rose in those countries. Now, it is all about achieving the flexible, high-quality production that digital technology can deliver closer to home. That means aiming for greater manufacturing operational intelligence and productivity by capturing and analysing data from machines, processes and factories to reduce asset downtime, shrink costs and boost product throughput.

Many manufacturing leaders will no doubt worry that this reinvention will involve huge investment at a time when preserving capital is paramount. But unlike many IT projects of the past – think of those ‘big bang’ enterprise resource planning implementations, for example – the ‘smart factory’ and greater operational intelligence can be achieved on an incremental basis.

Through the introduction of low-cost sensors deployed in limited sprints, for example, small wins in visibility quickly build into real savings. Smart use of intelligent robotics could help factories redeploy a limited workforce on higher-value activities. AR can likewise help skilled employees share vital manufacturing knowledge and process steps remotely with less experienced colleagues.

Willingness to experiment

In the current crisis, there are valuable lessons to be learned. Over recent months, many manufacturers have found themselves struggling to respond to the changing situation, with demand patterns and materials availability thrown into disruption.

But if the Industry 4.0 trend is about anything, it’s about moving away from a traditional reactive state to a more predictive one, which anticipates the availability of materials, people and assets, and constantly reassesses and reschedules production plans accordingly.

As the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium has demonstrated, a willingness to experiment with digital technologies, combined with the best of our nation’s manufacturing skills and talent, can be a powerful combination. It’s a lesson that will hopefully be remembered as we move towards a post-Covid world, one in which the UK is able to take full advantage of its innate strengths and reinforce its domestic capabilities for future resilience.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 

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