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Three key trends for manufacturing in the age of COVID-19

We have all seen changes in our lives catalysed by the pandemic, from the rise of remote working to the accelerated decline of the high street. In this article, we want to discuss the big changes happening in the world of manufacturing and the opportunities they present for your business.

Proximity Manufacturing 

Shipping Containers

From the Amazon warehouse that has just opened up down the road, to that new cutting tool vending machine your tooling provider has placed in your factory, we are all experiencing products getting closer to us.  

Having products and services in close proximity to their point of use slashes lead times, guarantees stock availability, and drives loyalty between businesses and their oh-so-close customers. 

All of this means value – more than ever, customers are willing to pay to avoid risk in their purchasing decisions, and having your components within their reach makes you the default choice.  

Remember the slogan “Nobody gets fired for buying IBM”? Well in an increasingly uncertain world, it might pay for you to play the role of IBM in the world of machining. 

The best way to do this would be to machine components on-demand right at your customer’s site, supplying them within hours of an order being placed. Whilst this is somewhat unachievable for most manufacturers, there are steps we can take along this path. 

Perhaps you can stock commonly-ordered components in a location closer to your main customers, using spare machining capacity to pro-actively build up stock for a speedy despatch when the order comes in.  

Even if we can’t get closer to our customers with location, dropping down lead times can give that competitive edge. By ordering common billets of stock material proactively ahead of time, we can drop lead-times to just the time it takes to machine and ship the component. 

Even inside the factory, maximising machining capacity and getting a tight control of the production schedule can help drive those lead-times down.  

In the age of uncertainty, anything we can do to get closer to our customers – either in physical location, or in speed of delivery – will boost loyalty, add value and get you one step ahead of the competition. 

Lights-Out Equipment 

Robotic Arm in a factory

No it’s nothing, new – the idea of lights-out machining has been around for ages, but something is changing – the UK is starting to deploy lights-out equipment like never before. Here at FourJaw, we have seen a real change – in years gone by, lights-out equipment was a bit of a novelty – great if you’ve got it, but certainly not essential.  

With the pandemic, all that has changed. 

One positive COVID-19 test can cause major disruption to staffing, with whole teams having to isolate at the drop of a hat. For those businesses without any lights-out equipment, this can bring production to its knees. 

However, through automation, machining businesses can decouple the production of components from the number of hours they have staff stood in front of their machines. This is the reason that businesses are rediscovering their bar-fed lathes and pallet-loaded mills, whilst seriously considering new investments in robotics and further automation. Even rearranging production schedules to allow one person to run multiple machines can have a significant impact. 

In the age of the pandemic, it is a key driver of success to separate the production output of your shop floor from the number of hours your machines are staffed. 

A natural and common reaction to this is a question around job security, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that lights-out manufacturing – contrary to the popular narrative – can make jobs more secure. 

Reduced costs, greater production capacities and more predictable scheduling are all benefits of lights-out manufacturing that make machining businesses more resilient, profitable, and better set to compete in the global economy for years to come. All of this has a positive effect on job prospects.  

However, there is something more – anyone who has worked on a sub-contract shop floor knows that not everything can be automated – far from it. When component geometries, materials, fixturing and programming are changing on a day-to-day basis, you need the skill of a machinist to get parts out the door. It would be a fool’s errand to try and implement lights-out machining in these circumstances.  

On the flip side, when something can be automated, then it should be automated, because if you don’t automate, someone else will, and they’ll be more competitive for it, making your business and the employees it supports less secure. 

Being competitive in the global manufacturing marketplace is a never-ending arms race where those who are most productive will succeed, and standing still means dropping behind. 

Whilst this is a sobering thing to consider, there is a fantastic opportunity here – moving towards lights-out manufacturing wherever possible will make your jobs more secure, your production more resilient, and your business more competitive in the global marketplace.  

Connecting Assets

Fibre Switch

We’ve all heard the excitement around 5G and how it is meant to revolutionise manufacturing, but let’s be honest – that’s not the kind of connectivity we really need. I have not seen one example of 5G being used to positively impact a machining SME’s productivity, profit margins or order book. 

I’m sure it will come, but here and now, there are types of connectivity that will make a positive impact in your business, and they’re much easier to implement. 

First of all, let’s talk about NC programs – how do you generate them and store them? The simplest way to do this is to program on-machine and store the NC programs on-machine. However, this can cause long periods of machine stoppage where NC programs are being written– time when the spindle could have been turning, making components and earning your business money. 

Connecting your machines up to the network allows off-machine programming with a CAM package, permitting greater spindle up-times as the programming time is now fundamentally separated from the operation of the machine. This also has the added benefit of easier program versioning so when a job comes back around, you can find the program from last time, rather than programming it again! 

Another great example of connectivity is Wi-Fi – no, it’s not super exciting, but it’s most certainly effective. Getting a reliable Wi-Fi signal across your shop floor is a huge enabler for connecting everything from coolant monitoring equipment to paper-less work orders. It is the foundation of your future business.  

The backdrop to this is how the pandemic has forced us to alter the way we work. Change is upon us whether we like it or not, so many manufacturers are using this as an opportunity to put in the connectivity they will need for the future success of their business. It’s difficult to think long-term when for some, survival alone has been tough. But for those who can, thinking about where your business will be in 5 years’ time, and laying the foundations today is the best way to piggy-back off the change that the pandemic brought. 

There are few who will dispute that the future of manufacturing is connected, so amongst all the turmoil and uncertainty, forward-thinking machining businesses are choosing to proactively take control of their future by putting in the connectivity today that will help them succeed in the post-pandemic world of tomorrow.  

Download our free guide to Industry 4.0

Find out what Industry 4.0 really is, if it’s required for success, and how a machining SME would go about implementing it in 2021.

A screenshot of the front page of the manufacturers' guide to Industry 4.0
Author avatar
John Yates
Communications Manager at FourJaw

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