Manufacturing is one of the key pillars of the UK economy. Whether it’s cars, chemical or consumer goods – to name but a few – millions of UK jobs depend on the sector either directly or indirectly.
But the sector is under more pressure than ever in a quickly-changing world. Headwinds caused by Brexit and Covid-19 have led to huge uncertainty, while at the same time, the arrival of Industry 4.0 technologies are poised to have a major impact on how many day-to-day operations work.
The key challenges facing manufacturers
Manufacturing presents a range of unique challenges. Interconnected supply chains that need to be tracked across the world, an ever-increasing amount of digital data from equipment and other sensors and an especially high sensitivity to external market changes all make for a difficult environment. Yet at the moment, the sector is having to contend with a double hit of potential disruptions, as the end of the Brexit transition period coincides with the latest wave of Covid.
Coping with Covid – how must manufacturers adapt?
Manufacturing firms are especially exposed to Covid-related disruption. As the majority of employees can’t work remotely and social distancing can be hard to achieve in factories and warehouses, companies may need to reduce production levels or reorient their facilities to maintain safe operations.
This may mean staggered shifts, banning non-essential personnel or investing in technologies such as automation. All this will increase the need for new communication technology to ensure operations can continue smoothly.
Reduced customer demand has also increased pressure on firms to keep costs as low as possible, Much uncertainty remains as to how long these conditions will last – with a survey from Make UK in October 2020 suggesting nearly four out of ten firms expect to take more than a year for normal trading conditions to resume.
New ways of working may also create additional challenges. For example, while factory floor staff will have no choice but to keep coming into work, back-office personnel may be more able to switch to remote working. This can create new challenges as disparate teams try to keep in touch, despite potentially being in different parts of the country.
Brexit challenges – how will it affect the sector?
Brexit has naturally been a major concern for manufacturers in the UK. Half of the UK’s exports go to the EU, but this only tells half the story. Many manufacturing sectors are dependent on heavily-interconnected supply chains that involve goods and raw materials moving back and forth across the English Channel, and these operations are set to experience much greater complexity now the UK has left the bloc.
For instance, many manufacturers depend on ‘just in time’ supply chains that require smooth handling of goods to complete and delivery finished products. Others have complex chains that include components sourced from all over the world. This could mean they fall foul of new rule of origin requirements when exported to the EU and face unexpected tariffs.
Make UK estimates firms will have to fill in up to 400 million new forms as a result of this. This extra paperwork means digital solutions to keep track of all this and ensure everyone has access to the right details wherever they are will be a must.
Two focuses for manufacturers – costs and productivity
To thrive in this challenging environment, manufacturers need to keep their costs down and their productivity as high as possible. This will be essential in offsetting any new expenses brought on by Brexit and getting back up to speed post-Covid.
For instance, more than seven out of ten manufacturers polled by PwC (71 per cent) said the potential financial impact was their greatest concern as a result of Covid-19. For UK firms, this will have been compounded by the threat of extra costs for doing business with the EU.
The arrival of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, automation and the Internet of Things will have a key part to play in meeting these challenges. McKinsey, for example, noted: “The role of Industry 4.0 becomes even more critical in the backdrop of a crisis such as Covid-19. Players utilizing digital solutions are better positioned to weather the storm, having moved faster and further than their peers during the crisis.”
To reap the benefits of this, however, firms will need to simplify their network infrastructures. Reducing the number of systems in use helps cut equipment, maintenance, and operating costs. Companies no longer need to invest in dedicated devices for call processing or maintain separate networks for different uses, such as videoconferencing. Adopting cloud services will be a key solution for many firms in achieving this. As well as enabling firms to streamline their IT, they offer much easier scalability, which is vital for manufacturers in today’s uncertain climate. What’s more, the fact they are classed as an operational expense rather than a capital expense is also a major advantage.
Adjusting to a new world – collaboration and communication
Manufacturers also need to be resilient, and to achieve this, they must have full operational visibility at all times – which can again be provided by cloud services.
Also at the heart of this is good connectivity, from the back office to the factory floor. In particular, solutions such as strong Wi-Fi will be integral to keeping operations running smoothly. This will be the backbone for a wide range of sensors, automation and analytics solutions that can be used to improve productivity and identify areas where costs can be cut.
Companies will therefore need solutions like base stations and access points that can guarantee connectivity across wide areas such as factory floors or warehouses, and also not be subject to any interference from manufacturing equipment.
Network-based security tools can also monitor factory floors to ensure any new health and safety directives are being followed.
In addition to data services, voice tools such as robust, wireless headsets suited to factory environments are a must-have. This ensures that employees on the floor can stay in touch with colleagues, customers, suppliers and even smart devices like alarms, security doors and CCTV.at the touch of a button, wherever they are.
To reap the benefits of this, however, firms will need to simplify their network infrastructures. Reducing the number of systems in use helps cut equipment, maintenance, and operating costs. Companies no longer need to invest in dedicated devices for call processing or maintain separate networks for different uses, such as video conferencing.
Cloud phone and collaboration solutions are likely to be essential in meeting these needs, as they offer much easier setup and scalability to respond to new demands quickly and cost-effectively.
The pandemic has also compelled manufacturers to reconsider their marketing activities. Trade shows, exhibitions and inviting potential clients to site have all been on-hold for a year, forcing companies to embrace video conferencing and collaboration technologies to showcase facilities and products.
Migrating on-premises applications to the cloud should be a priority for manufacturing companies, along with ensuring seamless integration of new digital services. To implement this, you need a partner with a deep understanding of the unique needs of the manufacturing sector, and a proven track record of delivering quality unified communications service.