Agile thinking for Covid-19 and beyond

4 mins read

Stephen Edge, Group Engineering Director at industrial services specialist, AIS Vanguard, discusses the short and longer-term considerations of the ‘new normal’ for the manufacturing sector and the importance of an agile and bespoke approach

As the UK eases out of lockdown it’s clear that the focus for the manufacturing sector has shifted from keeping things steady to real acceleration. Businesses are adapting to the challenges faced in the workplace as colleagues return, the controls of Covid-19 risk assessments are implemented and those plans on hold for investment start to reignite. There’s much to consider for manufacturing around capacity planning, seasonal demands, operational processes and the unique parameters the pandemic is creating in factory layouts.

The outcome of all of this is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach where environments are needed to be reconfigured in the post-Covid-19 era. As a result, working with an industrial services company that brings meaningful, practical and creative support to the planning phase for a new normal, will play a key role ensuring manufacturers balance the demands of employee safety and productivity.

Ahead of the Curve

Sectors that have been operating at full or increased a capacity during the peak of the pandemic are already ahead of the curve when it comes to implementing new operational regimes for the post-Covid-19 era. This includes sectors such as food and drink and manufacturers serving the healthcare sector.

The way in which many of these companies have mobilised revised working patterns and conditions has been impressive. It has varied from company to company and site to site, depending on resources and assets. For some, it has meant moving to revised shift patterns, splitting a shift team to implement 24-hour working, thus enabling them to maintain productivity levels while reducing the number of operatives on site at any one time. That strategy won’t work for all manufacturing environments, however, because safety or operational requirements for the machinery in use will vary from plant to plant. If it’s not possible or safe to run a shift with fewer people, social distancing has to become a feature of the factory layout to become viable. Technology, such as automation, and engineering solutions also play a role in the options considered.

Alongside social distancing, all manufacturers that have continued to operate during the lockdown have evaluated their requirements around PPE/PRE, considering these against the level of staffing and/or outputs they’ve been working with. PPE is an essential tool for protecting staff where social distancing guidelines cannot be followed, while it also instils confidence among the staff that their working environment is safe and that the employer has been proactive in protecting their health and wellbeing, and that of their families. Further measures include temperature checks at the beginning of every shift, revisions to welfare and catering facilities and staggered start times, conducted in compliance with safe workplace guidelines issued by the Government.

It’s been a process that has involved additional responsibilities for many in senior factory floor roles and, for many manufactures, it’s meant absorbing the additional costs of PPE and operational changes at a time when revenue has been significantly reduced. The question now is whether those demands are sustainable in the longer term. It’s already clear that social distancing will be a feature of the way we work for some time to come. Consequently, a similarly tailored approach to understanding where improvements can be made to factory layouts and asset usage is needed if manufacturers are to balance safety, productivity and cost management.

Getting Ready for the New Normal

In the midst of responding quickly to remain operational or furlough their teams in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, manufacturing companies have also had to consider their requirements for the future. This is no easy task; with no fixed lockdown period, constantly evolving advice and uncertain market conditions, the operational and commercial strain on businesses in the sector has been unprecedented.

Several weeks into the pandemic, the outlook is now beginning to look much clearer for many companies and, as experts in moving machinery, production lines and factories, we’re experiencing a steady rise in enquiries from manufacturers who need to reconfigure sites to revise their operations for the new normal; meanwhile projects put on hold are now being evaluated across the new climate and the guidelines in place, laying the groundwork for safely restarting plans which were originally intended for the beginning of this year.

The reasons behind their strategies vary. For some, it’s about rationalising their operations to maintain profitability in the face of reduced demand and the financial impact of the pandemic. For others, it’s about reconsidering their factory layout to implement more effective social distancing regimes. For those in high demand sectors, there’s a need to consider how they can increase capacity by leveraging under-used, mothballed or new machinery, or by improving workflows.

Whatever the reasons for reconfiguring their production plant layout or changing the way they use their assets, it’s vital that manufacturers develop an innovative asset optimisation strategy created to satisfy their unique operational priorities. While overcoming the challenges of a pandemic is new to us all, the AIS Vanguard team is leverages its decades-long experience in the manufacturing sector to consider how an existing facility can be reconfigured to achieve operational goals and benefits from working across sectors through the pandemic to provide new insight and advice. Our approach takes into account spatial considerations, such as moving equipment on a tight footprint to optimise space as well as practical considerations, such as floor loadings, access routes for lifting equipment and any requirements for taking equipment out of the factory environment. All of these factors must be viewed in the context of health and safety and operational parameters, allowing work to continue in a live environment safely and with minimal disturbance. Thus the importance of collaboration between the manufacturer’s leadership team and their industrial services partner can’t be understated.

For some manufacturers – particularly those having smaller production facilities that have grown piecemeal over time – making tangible productivity gains by reconfiguring the factory layout is possible, and it is likewise possible to enhance social distancing while improving workflows. In these cases, assessing technology and OEM for optimised operational effectiveness as plans are put in place is also key.

For those already operating on a lean footprint, reconfiguring assets in a way that will enable effective social distancing without losing productivity is more challenging, therefore the possibilities must explored on a case by case basis by those with the right expertise.

The other factor that can deter manufacturers from reconfiguring their facilities is concerns about business interruption. At a time when many in the sector have been impacted significantly by the pandemic, there is little appetite to lose productivity just as markets are starting to reset. Where this is the case, working with an industrial services partner that can phase the project to ensure the plant remains operational is essential. One alternative is to plan the reconfiguration around any anticipated interruptions to normal production, such as the annual maintenance programme. It’s also worth noting that we have seen many companies, particularly in sectors where demand has been reduced by the lockdown, bringing their annual maintenance programme forward, so that they can prepare now for busier times ahead.

Re-thinking the Factory Floor

Many manufacturers have come a long way in just a few short weeks, and, as in any sector, it’s the most agile businesses that are best placed to maximise the opportunity of the recovery. Part of that agility is about managing the assets, resources and people available, which sometimes means a bold re-think of the factory floor.