Comment: COVID is proving that adversity breeds innovation

The global pandemic is driving a new age of innovation and collaboration, writes Alan Mucklow, Managing Director UK & Ireland Sales & Service, at Yamazaki Mazak.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in the initial stages of the pandemic to be deeply concerned about how the UK’s manufacturing base would cope as global trade contracted at a dizzying speed.

Memories of the 2008 financial crisis came flooding back, but this crisis has been different, affecting different sectors and supply chains in ways none of us can have predicted. Unlike 2008 when consumer spending pulled the UK economy out of its malaise, the pandemic has seen retail and hospitality badly hit whilst manufacturing has managed to quickly adapt to new market conditions.

Early on I was struck by how quickly industry responded to the ventilator challenge, working collaboratively with suppliers, other manufacturers, scientists and designers to come up with solutions that were sometimes better than the blueprints provided by government.

That spirit of innovation continued as the impact of COVID-19 became ever more apparent. The closing of borders inevitably led to a downturn in aerospace manufacturing, across the length of the supply chain. Many of our own customers were highly aligned to it, but quickly looked to change their business models and seek out opportunities in new sectors, such as medical.

It was also interesting to see them quickly turn their attention to how to best use their assets and their people. There is an old saying, ‘never let a crisis go to waste’, meaning that crises are the time to look critically at your processes and ways of working and, if necessary, make changes you might have believed were unthinkable before.

One of the first impacts of COVID-19 March lockdown was a sudden spike in enquiries for automation systems as manufacturers grappled with how to maintain a safe social distance in their production processes.

From simple machine tending through to more sophisticated multi-pallet systems, the willingness to move quickly and adapt processes to the prevailing circumstances was another sign of the resilience and flexibility that defines much of UK manufacturing.

At Mazak, we’ve responded by introducing a series of new automation systems, working collaboratively with OEM manufacturers across Europe to source, develop and bring to market a range of turnkey automation solutions.

Enquiries from customers have not been confined to simple robotics. Small batch, low volume manufacturers have also shown an increased willingness to innovate. This includes 5-axis work, a traditional barrier to automation often regarded as ‘too difficult’, but which is now being rapidly automated with solutions, such as the MA system that can partner our own 5-axis machines.

This spirit of innovation has also encompassed the servicing and maintenance of machines. Social distancing and the potential for self-isolation for those who come into contact with someone who has COVID-19, has led to many manufacturers limiting visitors to their sites, including service personnel.

We have long had the ability to remotely monitor machines, but in recent months we have added augmented reality (AR) to our capabilities. For one of our key customers on the Isle of Man, the use of AR goggles enabled our service team to remotely look at the machine, diagnose the fault and get them back up and running in less than one hour. Compared to the onerous and time-consuming travel to the island – and necessary isolation for our service personnel once there – this was a win for us and for the customer.

Going forward, I can only see this spirit of innovation and collaboration continuing at pace. Many of our key industries are undergoing significant change, such as the automotive sector which is rapidly transitioning to a hybrid and electric future. These changes will require new ways of working, new processes and new ideas.

In 2021, the machine tool sector will continue to play its part. All being well, and I know that is far from certain in these strange times, this will be an EMO year, our sector’s bi-annual celebration of innovation. It is the focal point of machine development and an opportunity for the industry, and its customers, to benchmark itself against our peers.

I expect EMO to add further to the air of positivity that is surrounding UK manufacturing. Yes, 2020 was difficult, but we have survived and, in many cases, flourished. I put that down, in large part, to a willingness to be flexible, to think outside the box and embrace new ways of working.

Here’s to 2021 and a year of innovation.

This article was published by the Engineer magazine - view it here