As if the 2007 global financial crash and the complexities of adapting to the rapid development of technology and e-commerce wasn’t enough, along comes the first global pandemic for 100 years and unimagined economic turmoil. It is undoubtedly true that challenge is built into the entire concept of manufacturing, but these are unprecedented times.
No discussion of industry can be conducted without addressing the devastating effects of the pandemic, which at the time of writing is far from over. During the worst of the lockdowns, 51 per cent of manufacturing businesses did not participate in the government’s furlough scheme and it is likely that this is what led to significant redundancies in an industry that the UK needs more post-Brexit than it has for decades.
It is unlikely that we have seen the end of these job losses. The inadequacy of the industry’s response revealed vulnerabilities in the systems, processes and supply chains that will need to be urgently addressed.
Pressures on manufacturing are inevitable outside the single market, with bureaucracy already increasing costs and causing delays. Some point to the competitive benefits in a potential decrease in the value of the pound for the export market, but the downside is the higher costs of imports and materials. Equally, the established manufacturing routes within the EU will no longer be possible, which means manufacturers will have to develop alternative arrangements for outsourcing and interim processing.
Less of a challenge and more of an opportunity, automated manufacturing processes will need to become the norm to enable UK companies to compete internationally. Vital procedures such as the application of plasma spray as a protective coating in the production of machinery and other heavy-duty engineering projects are undergoing significant development at long-established UK companies such as Poeton as part of the revolution in automation.
Skilled workers are in short supply. Whether this is a result of Brexit or other disruptive influences is immaterial – what is needed is a comprehensive initiative to retrain and reskill workers whose qualifications no longer match the requirements of manufacturing.
Selling direct to consumers may not come easily to manufacturers comfortable with the wholesale-retail supply chain; however, many of the old economic certainties are disappearing and it is important for manufacturers to recognise that this relationship could become vital not only for future success but also for survival.