Adjusting to the new normal in UK manufacturing

Author : George Walker | Managing Director | Novotek

01 November 2020

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The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has changed all our lives. The next big challenge the manufacturing sector faces is getting employees back to work – safely – and kick-starting production.

This article was originally featured in the November 2020 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Here, George Walker, Managing Director of industrial automation specialist, Novotek explains the role digitisation can play in getting manufacturers back to pre-pandemic production levels, while also keeping their workers safe and complying with Government guidelines for social distancing.

A Deloitte global survey from June 2019 shows that although 94% of executives in industrial companies consider digital transformation a top priority, only 14% believe their factories are ready to make the changes needed.

The events of the last few months, however, could be the catalyst that convinces many to take the plunge and invest in digitisation. As the manufacturing sector begins to operate in what is set to be the new industrial normal, technologies such as the industrial internet of things (IIoT), robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) will play a key role in getting productivity back on track and keeping workers safe and well.

Connectivity is the key

A sharp rise in people working from home has created a boom in collaborative online platforms that facilitate remote working, which has been of particular benefit to those working in offices rather than production facilities. However, implementing a range of technology tools can also enable industrial plant managers to remotely operate, monitor and control equipment efficiently, effectively and above all else, safely.

The IIoT allows electronic devices in factories to connect, so plant managers and engineers can collect and analyse real-time data on the performance of individual machines. In the 1980s, Novotek revolutionised industrial automation with the introduction of its PC-based supervisory control & data acquisition (SCADA). Today, with more advanced and faster applications available, the new generation of SCADA/DCS (distributed control system) tools from Novotek allow plant managers to connect all devices in the plant, collect data and share it to measure the real time performance of the entire plant.

Built-in cameras and sensors enable equipment to send signals to SCADA systems through remote terminal units (RTUs) and programmable logic controllers (PLCs). This data enables SCADA systems to pinpoint anomalies in system functions, alerting users that action needs to be taken to resolve the problem.

The data can also be used in a predictive way, helping with operational planning, which could prove of vital important for those plants with reduced workforces. Regular analysis of data over a period of time can enable plant operators to predict any anomalies, avoiding workers having to stay in specific areas, helping to comply with social distancing measures.

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Work remotely

Working from home has become the new normal, even now measures are less restrictive than during full lockdown.

With fewer people on-site, Novotek recommends deploying remote assistance technologies with augmented reality, such as Vuforia Chalk. This can help staff collaborate from anywhere in the world, maintaining high levels of productivity, reducing costs and avoiding unnecessary trips.

Using Vuforia Chalk, an engineer can quite literally be on the other side of the world, but still able to fully support technicians in the factory to address an issue. The easy-to-use app allows experts to draw or annotate using AR on the other user’s device, helping guide them through troubleshooting and maintenance, among other uses. As the user moves around, the markings move too, allowing teams to solve complex problems despite physical distance.

Automation, AR and AI are all technologies that can help make processes inside a factory easier and safer, not just during a pandemic. Perhaps one of the most important lessons of COVID-19 is that we can get back to normal, and with the right technologies, we can make plants more productive in the long term, without wasting time.

What COVID-19 has shown us about industrial adaptability & pivoting

There can be no underestimating the scale of COVID-19’s impact on almost every industry, especially manufacturing. Industrial businesses have seen significant disruptions to global supply chains, an overall fall in demand, the unfortunate furloughing of workforces and the closure of facilities across the country.

This has, of course, culminated in notable contractions of UK manufacturing output, according to data from the IHS Markit & CIPS UK Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index between March and May 2020. This was one of many contributing factors to the UK’s overall gross domestic product (GDP) shrinking by one-fifth in April 2020 alone.

In unprecedented times such as these, it becomes important to focus on recovering from uncertainty. To prepare industry for what comes next, we can look instead to positives that have emerged from the current situation.

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Although figures may paint a picture of an industry in decline, we have also seen a remarkably positive trend in UK manufacturing: rapid adaptability. This trend can be observed by looking to some of the firms that have responded quickly and fluidly to the changing global situation.

For example: London-headquartered global chemical company, INEOS. The company already produced isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and ethanol – two of the core ingredients of hand sanitiser – in its Grangemouth, Scotland factory. As the outbreak took hold and Europe encountered a shortage of hand sanitiser, INEOS built a new factory in Middlesbrough and kick-started production of one million units per month. INEOS achieved this within 10 days and restructured its distribution by partnering with its own sponsored cycling team, Team INEOS, to support free distribution of the sanitiser to hospitals.

There has also been rapid adaption in the automotive industry, where manufacturers have shifted gears from vehicles and parts to ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare professionals. Rolls-Royce and Ford are two manufacturers among many that joined the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium of industrial businesses, repurposing their plants to manufacture ventilators.

Similarly, Jaguar Land Rover has repurposed its Advanced Product Creation Centre as a medical visor production facility. The company also plans to make its open source computer-aided design (CAD) files available to additive manufacturers, further supporting continued efforts to increase PPE production.

From Novotek’s experience working with businesses from across the broad spectrum of industrial sectors, we have consistently encountered a perceived need for industrial reinvigoration. In the face of this pandemic, it seems manufacturers have achieved this by adapting quickly, collaborating with one another and diversifying their supply chains.

Key to achieving this has been the resources available to realise sudden shifts in design, material requirements and production practices. Tools and technologies like effective control systems, modern manufacturing execution systems (MES) and modular automation hardware no doubt supported these pivots in production.

Such systems will remain crucial in the months ahead. With the prospect of diversifying supply chains and managing large scale industrial operations, for example, industrial applications will be key to success. Engineers, managers and teams across a company can create applications that deliver insight into data from numerous input systems, providing timely, valuable information.

COVID-19 has been, and continues to be, a testing time for industries, businesses and people alike. However, it has also demonstrated the latent potential and power still possessed by UK manufacturing. If we can do it in a hurry now, we can do it again once the pandemic passes – at which point, it can lead to the prosperous, reinvigorated manufacturing industry we all want.


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