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Scaling up to flatten the curve

14 April, 2020

Before and after Christmas, I was in discussions with DFA Media about joining its experienced editorial team on Drives & Controls and its sister titles. I am delighted that these reached a successful conclusion, even though none of us envisaged what lay ahead, and the extent to which it is now defining everything we all do and how we do it. Many businesses will be challenged merely to get through the coming months. Against this backdrop, Tony Sacks has kindly handed me the opportunity to write this – my first Comment column for Drives & Controls.

Home working is a simple adjustment to make for those of us who write and edit magazines - in fact I am in my 26th year as a home worker. The days of going to the office may well be over for many. There may be a realisation that focusing everything in the cities – especially the South East of England – poses big risks and can only reinforce the need for investment in the unfashionable parts of the country. Should our priority be less about trying to move people with fast roads and railways, and, by installing superfast broadband, move data instead?

With the return to the home, the post-virus world may become more Orwellian. We may be asked to acquiesce to a different kind of intrusion: software that allows companies to monitor who is actually working, or even more intimate measures like public monitoring of our temperature and blood pressure! Cities, built up over centuries into gigantic office and residential buildings, could change dramatically. It is hard to imagine a repeat of the age of the plague, when the answer was that poor people from the countryside moved in. But new uses may have to emerge for lesser-occupied if not abandoned office buildings.

That said, running a manufacturing business from home is a much greater challenge. Figures released by Leesman suggest that UK manufacturing and industrial engineering is one of the least prepared industries to weather a mass home working strategy. “Home working will undoubtedly prove pivotal in limiting the impact of Coronavirus crisis," says Leesman CEO, Tim Oldman. "But the data suggests that many employers and employees across the manufacturing and engineering space will be out of their depth should British businesses be forced into lockdown."

Factories are shutting down in droves. But while closing factories is hard, re-opening will be harder. Some critical manufacturing industries such as food, consumer products, and life sciences are already moving to continue operating with social distancing measures implemented. The biggest mistake operational and digital leaders can make now is to assume that in a few weeks everything will go back to the way it was and begin operating again as normal. The worst-case could be multiple waves of the virus over the next 18 months.

The Coronavirus is vastly speeding up the latest wave of automation. Robotisation is going ahead faster in factories, warehouses, restaurants and other businesses, all in a frenzy to reduce risk and save labour costs. specialises in providing a range of different cobot arms, a concept which is really taking off when manufacturing needs to stay operational, but the lockdown is causing staffing issues. Once installed, the robot can be monitored remotely to check the tasks performed and productivity. “We have totally run out of robots at the moment, but we are due more in the next couple of weeks," says CEO Tim Warrington. "Demand for robot hire has risen so fast that we just couldn't keep up with it. Food packaging and plastic moulding companies in the medical sector are our main sectors."

In a competitive marketplace, the profit opportunity is defined by how quickly one can get a product from concept to production. As product lifetimes have shortened progressively, so the tools used to shrink development times have become crucial. These include collaborative working, parallel development teams, follow-the-sun design activities, digital twins and advanced manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing.

Over the coming months, we will recognise many heroic achievements. The artificial Intelligence revolution already underway will have kept many who embraced it in business. Robotics, Industry 4.0 and remote maintenance will have kept our society running and our species safer. These developments, and the productivity enhancements they bring, will endure beyond CoVID-19.

One area in which collaborative work is certainly going on is the production of ventilators. Even as political considerations seem to have obstructed the supply of these vital machines, it is heartening to see how engineering companies have shared ventilator designs as open-source documents, enabling companies who normally manufacture aero engines, racing cars, and even vacuum cleaners to come together to answer the national and global emergency.

With most engineering products, shrinking product development times is rarely a matter of life and death. But now we face a race against time to manufacture vaccines and cures where every minute saved equates to lives spared and hastens our ability to return to a more recognisable society than lockdown.

Vaccine development has always been a careful and heavily regulated process, and shortcuts could lead to ethical dilemmas at best, and calamitous outcomes at worst. Currently, it is estimated that a vaccine will not be available for at least 12 and perhaps 18 months. Can this process be speeded up by relaxing the regulations and using the tools of advanced manufacturing to scale up manufacture to provide the billions of doses that would be required?

There are many candidate vaccines in development throughout the world. It is by no means clear the extent to which this is a collaborative effort, or a competitive one, where the winner stands to make a fortune. Parallel development is absolutely the correct strategy, but once a winner emerges, please let us ensure that vaccine manufacture is carried out collaboratively, in order to eradicate this menace in the minimum possible time. Bill Gates argues that running “rapid trials involving various candidates” for possible vaccines is the best way to find an effective treatment — and avoid a situation in which people hoard lifesaving drugs and keep them away from those who need it most. And we should build facilities now that could “manufacture billions of doses.”

Every Thursday evening, we rightly stand and applaud the momentous efforts of our NHS workers who are giving so much on the front line. Never again will we overlook who it is we need in a crisis. It is the doctors, nurses, cleaners, bus drivers and delivery drivers who are keeping our society going. And perhaps we can give a slight nod at least to the engineers and scientists, those undervalued and unfashionable communities, who have answered the call when it mattered most.

Andy Pye, Consulting Editor

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