In a virtual roundtable Q&A session, Aerospace Manufacturing’s Mike Richardson hears the views of four leading UK companies as they discuss the effects of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic on the industry.
Part way through the pandemic, a number of manufacturing companies have been using their time wisely to prepare for an efficient restart of operations post-crisis and emerge stronger by taking steps to improve performance and capitalise on strategic opportunities. Smart companies will already have contingencies for an unanticipated disruption to their business and as a result can start the process of executing their action plans now. It’s better to take swift and decisive action before an impending problem turns into a full-fledged crisis.
Q) Is there a particular area of your business that has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in your opinion, or is everyone equally affected?
“We’ve seen a mixed response across the manufacturing industries we serve,” begins PRF Composites’ sales & marketing director, Hannah Khusainova. “Most affected have been the automotive and aircraft industries, however no industry has been unaffected. We have customers who didn’t halt production during lockdown and those that are still getting back to full capacity.”
JETCAM’s managing director, Martin Bailey has seen a dip in some areas of business during the lockdown period: “What worked to our advantage is that we’re a global company split across two distinct markets – composites and sheet metal. So, where some markets were hit, others were not. Fortunately, we received some large orders during this period which offset the drop and we had our best May sales figures in eight years of trading.”
Q) What particular aspect has helped your company get through the pandemic?
According to Khusainova, the breadth of industries PRF covers has helped it continue during the pandemic: “Great praise must go to our team of employees, who diligently followed lockdown protocol and kept themselves safe through the height of the pandemic. They continue to be risk-averse, follow our risk management procedures and protect themselves, each other and the company.”
JETCAM is already a very ‘spread out’ organisation, with personnel already working from home since 1999: “We did close our offices during lockdown with only one member of staff going in to handle shipments, but other than that everyone was able to work remotely as mechanisms have been in place for several years,” says Bailey. “We host our own cloud system for document management and sharing, and have an online system for both us and our dealers to access customer and license information.”
Poeton Industries’ group director of sales and marketing, Sean Hammond says that the company has seen turbulent times during its 120+ years of experience in business: “But this previous experience has instilled a culture that have allowed us to show the initiative and resourcefulness to adapt to this latest challenge. The whole Poeton team has adapted to the ever-changing situation whilst continuing to provide high quality surface treatments to our customers.”
Q) Should companies be using this pandemic-enforced downtime to ‘reset’ and look at how effectively they’re running their businesses?
“We’ve always worked with continual improvement in mind, so this isn’t something we introduced purely to occupy any downtime,” says Khusainova. “We’ve found that it has been a useful time to focus on infrastructure improvements and product development. We’ve also strengthened our R&D team in order to prepare for the recovery of the industry going forward.”
According to RPI’s managing director, Peter Marchbank, it’s a perfect time for most companies to relook at their business model and assess whether this is still relevant in the short to medium term: “I would caution against making changes that will seriously affect their core capabilities, making them unattractive or irrelevant within the supply chain. It’s also a good period to focus on projects that will make them more productive as you can devote expertise that would otherwise be focused elsewhere.”
Poeton’s Hammond says a lot of companies have either been forced, or taken the opportunity, to look at their organisation structure and reflect on their working practices: “This can be seen as a real positive, and we have also done similar. The chance to review has allowed us to realign priorities and ensure we are in the best position to offer the treatment and service our customers require over the coming years.”
Q) Are there any positives in general to come out of all this?
RPI’s Marchbank says it has shown that companies can work together when faced with a common cause i.e. design, manufacture of ventilators: “Hopefully, this same spirit of collaboration can be applied to making it a core capability of the UK’s advanced engineering sector.”
JETCAM’s Bailey adds that staff on the shopfloor might previously have limited access to attend/host online meetings, this is now seen as the preference, rather than organising a face-to-face meeting: “Companies are realising they can get a much faster response from a supplier. Whether it’s a prospect wanting a demo or a customer wanting technical support, these demands can often be met within the hour with a quick online meeting.”
Q) What kind of industry landscape will we face when everything gets back to normal – if indeed we ever get back to ‘normal’?
Marchbank thinks it’s going to become more parochial: “Not from a viewpoint of isolating ourselves from other manufacturing countries, but we will see a lot of onshoring/reshoring and becoming self-reliant. This will undoubtably create new opportunities for the industry. There will also be a need for clustering amongst the SME community not only in order for them to meet these manufacturing challenges but to become more cost effective.”
Meanwhile, Bailey suggests that ‘normal’ is some time away yet: “There are two ways out of this: cure or vaccine. I don’t see the former coming any time soon, and a vaccine needs to be rolled out to the majority of the population in order to be effective - and that will take time. During lockdown, staff were coming to terms with this new way of working online. Thankfully, software sales and support lend itself well to these online methods. Now that people are used to dealing with others over a video conference this will actually accelerate companies’ ability to implement new projects rather than it being seen as a poor substitute for face to face meetings.”
Q) It’s increasingly unlikely there will be any tradeshows for the foreseeable future? Are ‘virtual’ tradeshows now the way forward?
“Tradeshows will be ‘different’ for the short-term future,” notes Khusainova. “We must be prepared to do shows a little differently for the foreseeable future and plan to get the benefits from them in different ways. I’m uncertain on virtual shows; the way they develop will need to evolve organically to see what the market responds well to and what works.”
Bailey reckons that tradeshows will make their way back, but only after mass rollout of a vaccine: “And I think that’s at least a year away. We’re not just talking about the UK here - imagine shows like JEC World and the Paris Airshow: they cannot take place until enough attendees are vaccinated. Virtual events will gain some traction but not to the extent that a tradeshow would generate.”
According to Hammond, virtual tradeshows may help to bridge the gap, but won’t ever be able to replace the physical versions: “Virtual events won’t be able to replicate the personal feel of meeting face-to-face and show off examples of your work. For this reason, we are hopeful that the government trials of events are successful and we can start planning towards a return, something our suppliers within the industry are extremely confident that they can be held safely.”
Q) Will Industry 4.0 and the Factory of the Future streamline new ways of working and help provide strong foundations for the changes ahead?
Khusainova feels it’s still very difficult to predict how they will change manufacturing and the way offices work: “We know several companies looking to reduce or remove workspace post-pandemic, and we don’t want to travel in that direction ourselves. Those staff who have been able to work remotely during lockdown reported low levels of productivity and a preference to be in an office environment. As such, we see the benefits that the workplace provides, including fostering better communication with staff, security of data and information, and productivity.”
Bailey meanwhile reckons anything that de-skills complex tasks, streamlines production processes and provides information to trends has to be good for the future: “There will be those that embrace it and many that don’t – the gap between the success of those companies will widen.”
Q) Do your long-standing partnerships bring huge benefits, particularly as trusted relationships can lead to a better way forward for all?
“PRF has always focused on being a trusted supplier to our customers, and building long-standing partnerships with our suppliers,” Khusainova affirms. “Many of our suppliers have been with us for the majority of our near 40 years of operating and many of them are family businesses that have grown as we have. Good relationships with our suppliers and customers have always been integral to how we operate and will continue to be.”
Bailey agrees: “That’s the key word – trust. Many of the conversations we’ve had this year with existing customers have come about because of them trusting our opinion and knowledge.”
Poeton, meanwhile, prefers to build a long-term relationship with manufacturers and like to be involved as early as possible: “Ideally, we will be consulted at the design stage, where we can provide advice about selecting the best coating and designing components with this in mind. You wouldn’t believe the number of times we see drawings and no consideration has been given to how a component will be held when coating it!”
Q) Where to next for your company?
Marchbank concludes that the time is right for all UK SMEs to take their skills and capabilities and focus on exporting them to other developed and emerging aerospace-centric economies: “The UK’s advanced engineering sector pushes against an open door internationally when it comes to this sector.”
Poeton is currently looking to push into new and growing markets, and with its wide range of coatings, is sure to have a choice of solutions for the application: “Our R&D team are also pushing ahead in developing the latest range of surface treatments,” says Hammond. “We have already launched one new coating this year with more to follow before the end of the year.”
People, technology, commitment. Our UK companies are really pulling together and stepping up to the challenge posed by the pandemic. And while all of us have been surprised just how effective some of these new methods of working have been, it looks like this crisis is bringing out the best in people.