Discussion about the Bright Future of Manufacturing in Wales

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As a theme partner at last month’s Emerging Tech Fest 2021, UWTSD’s MADE Cymru hosted a round table discussion with a number of industry experts to talk about how manufacturers in Wales have adapted to the challenges of the pandemic.

MADE Cymru is an EU funded programme, supported by the European Social Fund/European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government, delivered by University of Wales Trinity Saint David that offers manufacturers in Wales industrial-led learning opportunities and collaborative R&D.

MADE Cymru’s Graham Howe and Lisa Lucas were joined by:

Alison Orrells, CEO & MD, Safety Letter Box

Natalie Glover, General Manager, Reeco Automation Ltd

Oliver Conger, MD, Rototherm Group

Lynn Davies, Director, Probe RTS

David Morgan, Group Manager, Solutions and Industry Marketing, Avanade

The discussion was honest, engaging and positive – we’ve included some of the key points below.

Alison Orrells – Safety Letter Box

“At the beginning of Covid-19, we set up temperature checks, split shifts, homeworking, PPE – everything we could think of, we threw at it. Getting everyone safe was the initial priority. In that phase one of the pandemic, we focused on busines survival. It was apparent there was a way through it.

The biggest challenge was ‘people’ – and how to communicate with each other and the customers so we invested in IT. By the Summer we understood more and were able to push on with R&D – and invest in new products. It was important to keep innovating and investing to set us apart and come out stronger. It’s been intense but we had a game plan – now it is all about business future-proofing, being agile, collaborations and being adaptable. In terms of the manufacturing side of our business (the physical side), to ensure continuity we had to split shifts and take more space. The challenge as an SME was how do we make that step to identify where there can be improvements within the Covid restrictions.

There are so many new external factors in improving productivity and output – being home, childcare, self-isolation – every day you are faced with new challenges. It has shown us the benefits of additional automation. As we look to expand to a new factory, it is essential to us to use technology that we wouldn’t have thought of before – it is a shift change.

There’s also a real challenge in how we recruit young people coming out of school – manufacturing is seen as old fashioned and unattractive – how can we try to recreate and rejuvenate our sector? And it’s not just about the shop floor – there’s opportunities in other departments such as marketing and sales strategy. There are even opportunities to move in different departments – it all boils down to attitude, approach and positivity. With a can-do approach you have so many opportunities – a university definitely has a role to play in helping us with that.”

Natalie Glover – Reeco Automation Ltd

“Back in April we were nervous about what was going to happen next. We work closely with the automotive industry – customers were postponing projects and pushing things back, some supplies were shut off from us. We made the decision to send most of our workforce home on furlough whilst we made changes to the factory. We carried on with projects but at the same time we were still looking at our growth plan to see how we could continue as a business. We decided to take on more apprentices and upskill some of the staff.

Production continued back in June. Customers we work with are definitely more accepting of technologies in the workplace. Technology enhances production – they do not replace the operator who is highly skilled – it allows them to use their skills and knowledge elsewhere. Cobots can then be used for social distancing or more mundane work. Customers often find their workforce has increased and this has a positive effect on the floor.

It’s important to recognise that customers are never looking to replace operators – just to re-direct human skills to help the company grow.

In terms of skill gaps, before the pandemic I was working with local colleges and schools looking at engineering courses to help meet the hiring challenges of local manufacturers. People simply do not know about the local opportunities available in rural mid Wales. Local students are leaving university and not coming back home to work. We will continue to struggle until we can put Wales back on the map for manufacturing technology – we need to start working with the education system and showing them what we do and what we need. We should provide opportunities – take on apprentices, upskill and mould them to what the industry needs.

Manufacturers in Wales really stick together, and we can achieve so much more this way. Collaboration is powerful and by working together, we can get through this together.”

Oliver Conger – Rototherm Group

“We have stayed open throughout. We had two priorities in March – keep everyone safe and, keep everyone in a job. We certainly didn’t want to close as a business, so we went into battle mode.  Slowly we saw some of the supply chains dry up and we started to struggle getting parts in. In April we began to adapt and brought some of the stuff in-house.

We started to train people to do the new tasks – even using You Tube to learn how to do some of these processes. It brought all the staff closer together as we asked how can we get through this? The cultural side of a business really shines through during these extreme times and leadership is very important as we had a lot of very worried people onsite. Communication with staff was important.

Speed of decision making was also key – decisions were made immediately. We can now make much faster decisions – that is certainly something I found very valuable over the last 12 months. For SMEs, it has been key to consider how we spend money – you want to get it right. There is so much technology available – we really tried to understand the process and what the benefits were even down to the operator level.

If we are going to choose something, we all have to be in 100%. We’ve chosen to improve quality first so quality is key – without quality you don’t have the customer trust and the British are best at quality for manufacturing. Capacity is an issue – trying to get that balance. We’ve made a number of investments in the last six to nine months – especially with the current good prices on capital equipment. We really are building for that future when things open up. This will further drive up our quality.

We’ve had a lot of help from MADE Cymru in choosing the right technologies. MADE Cymru is there to help companies, and manufacturers should go and chat with these experts. Not enough companies are using the resources around them. Getting companies to establish relationships with the likes of MADE Cymru is important, they don’t have to have something immediate in the pipeline. With us, we’ve been talking with them for the best part of 18 months before we did anything – when the opportunity arose, we contacted MADE Cymru and moved quickly forward on a project. I want to encourage SMEs to connect and build that relationship and at the right time – press that button!

In terms of staffing, if you have the right initiative and a great attitude and are willing to learn, you are 99% there. I am a firm believer you can learn anything. It’s not all about the CV. Inspire people – find out who’s up for this. The world is changing it will not go back to what it was. We must have a positive approach and not wait for it to go back to normal.”

Lynn Davies – Probe RTS

“Over the last year, the act of going into companies and working with people and process has closed down quickly because of social restrictions. We took a step back and looked at the business, cash flow was key and through being prudent we haven’t lost any staff – we’ve had to re-train staff to do different things to what they were doing before. In that respect we’ve been very agile, and it also gave us an opportunity to do something different with the business and to focus on a different path.

The norm has now changed, and you have to take time out to see how to manage things differently for us and for our clients. Luckily for us our POET software has sat in that digitalisation niche – our software allows you to manage from afar. It has been really challenging in one respect that some of our main income stream has closed off but, in another respect, it has given us the impetus to do something different as a business. Through our productivity software we decided that this is how we’re going to take the business forward. The world has changed, the biggest challenge and opportunities are not just in the value-adding process where you have to have the people to make the parts, but it is in the whole management structure. Some companies are trying to manage from afar with old legacy systems, which are slow, and difficult– we think it is the management level that is more affected than the guys actually doing the job on the shop floor. How can you adapt technologies to control and enhance? We will get a lot more autonomous people on the shop floor running the processes themselves without the need for micro-management, this means that time would be better spent on improvement to the Value adding, POET allows you to do this

The manufacturing sector is used to change and becoming more productive through the process and its systems. Covid has been a huge challenge. The sector will always find a way to bounce back.”

David Morgan – Avanade

“Manufacturers are used to challenges but Covid-19 has accelerated the need to adapt, change and deliver things differently. We are seeing three key areas a) the connected workplace/workers (safely working in different ways), collaboration in many locations and producing products and services with new skills and technologies  b) resilient operations – making sure you are adapting to working to different models, addressing supply chain disruption and having the ability to optimise operations and increase productivity with new business models / partnerships  and c) agility – the ability to innovate and drive sustainable but agile production of new products and services for the ever evolving needs of today’s consumer.

Manufacturers need to be able to embrace and not fear the next challenge with innovative solutions using new technology. The UK ventilator challenge, for example, was given to manufacturers to address the Covid-19 need. Avanade & Microsoft worked with manufacturers across industry sectors, helping them with new technology and collaboration tools. It enabled over 20 years of ventilators being produced in 12 weeks. Technology is helping to address these challenges.

We do a lot of work with analysts who predict by 2024 that over 50% of manufacturers will be doing work remotely. We will have to adapt to this new hybrid model as today distance is no barrier for manufacturing goods and services. Covid has really accelerated something that was already going to happen. Industry 4.0 technologies e.g. AI / Digital Twins/ Blockchain, should make manufacturing jobs more attractive – we particularly need to attract Generation Z as manufacturing is incorrectly viewed as not an attractive place to work.

Digitalisation and the tangible benefits of some of today’s technologies are providing an opportunity to give people (the future generation of manufacturers) the right skills. One of the areas that will grow further is the use of immersive / mixed reality technologies. This technology is already enabling  remote collaboration, improving production cycle times, enhancing the safety of workers and leading to the rapid upskilling of key workers…only a few years ago this technology was viewed as science fiction but today immersive technology is making a tangible case for improving the perception of the manufacturing sector.

Avanade is proud of its ability to uncover digitally inspired innovation across all industry sectors.  Through our partnerships with universities like University of Wales Trinity Saint David, we’d like to see an increase in STEM graduates keen on providing innovative solutions. Our focus is on business outcomes through applied innovation, working with industry and collaborating with universities and uncovering practical ideas and solutions for the manufacturers and factories of the future.”

Lisa Lucas – MADE Cymru / UWTSD

“The MADE Cymru programme we have put together was always intended to be delivered online but even though people are more comfortable with this type of interaction, it has still been challenging speaking to the businesses about it. On a personal level I am engaging with technology all the time –  home schooling, socialising, work – it has become part of our lives and that won’t go away. But there is a balance in using technology – it doesn’t replace human relationships.

The misconception and cultural barriers that we come across is the idea that technology can replace jobs. Yet the work we do recreating the digital twin of a manufacturing facility to forecast future scenarios has actually highlighted the importance of technology in enhancing the workforce (not replacing it). Skills are key and with redundancies, furlough, companies closing – there’s a skill gap. We can help change the perception of jobs in manufacturing – and overcome the challenges in recruiting young people who wrongly see it is as low paid labour in a dirty environment – which is not the case.

Universities are not always looked at as a resource for manufacturing. How can we as universities or as a programme help this? MADE Cymru starts with YOU and what those challenges are – how can we pull together solutions and technologies.

We want to have a relationship with Welsh manufacturers and see how we can help you rather than bombard you with information.”

Graham Howe – MADE Cymru / UWTSD

“The time it takes for decision making has changed – meetings are happening faster and easier. No more diary management discussing where and when we would have the meeting. Technology has enhanced how the MADE Cymru project works too – for example, we are walking manufacturing lines via Facetime and covering multiple shifts – understanding the issues. By doing it digitally we are able to identify the key differences of different shifts. Although that face-to-face element is still important, there are technologies out there that can really help us. All Covid has done is accelerated what was already in track pre-Covid.

The speed of things is so much faster but process must always come first, technology second. I think working in a university with an industry background, I sat down and thought about the whole process of a student writing an assignment. Traditionally only the student and the lecturer (me) would read it. How can we share this work? Now we share work with the whole cohort so they can all benefit from the findings of a particular issue. This is the basis of MADE Cymru – one company will have solved a problem that another company currently has. Sharing solutions together rather than reinventing the wheel – our students get a really professional network. Sharing mistakes even moves us forward. The power of MADE Cymru’s network is special and important.

The use of appropriate technology is key – technologies are moving forward all the time BUT the skills required in how we understand that technology and understand where it will make an economic benefit are all the same skills. Skills of understanding and deployment are important.

We always start with asking a manufacturer what is your biggest problem today – how can we help you with that. We have two ears and one mouth and use them in that ratio to understand what an industry needs. The input we get from industry shapes our future curriculum. We want graduates to have employability written all over them. And grow resilience. I’m really excited about the future of manufacturing in Wales. With these new technologies such as AI, we have a real affinity with these young peoples’ worlds and manufacturing is an attractive proposition for them.”