Eric Stoop, CEO, Ease explains why quality will be a characteristic that defines the winners and losers in the post-pandemic world.

As the UK manufacturing sector continues its economic recovery, albeit slowly, a feeling of optimism is spreading throughout the industry as vaccines against COVID-19 continue to be rolled out. And while this creates a mixed picture for the sector, and it remains unclear how 2021 will play out, there are some considerations that will remain constant for the year ahead.

In any scenario, quality has a large part to play in determining which companies come out strong and which ones may struggle. As we enter the new year, we are examining what quality leaders must prioritise, and how to meet the challenges to build a stronger, better manufacturing organisation overall.

COVID-19 safety

As the pandemic wears on, employee safety remains the number one priority that quality leaders must focus on. Beyond the sizable personal impacts of COVID-19 on workers and their families, manufacturers must also keep in mind the impacts on productivity and potential liabilities and costs.

Guidance on how to provide a safer plant environment is changing all the time as the virus itself evolves, but not keeping pace with the latest government instructions could result in significant financial penalties for the business, or even criminal prosecution under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. However, given how unprecedented the pandemic is it is unlikely this will be enforced in most cases.

Digital transformation

The second major priority for quality leaders in 2021 should be digital transformation, especially considering pandemic related staffing shortages and potential changes in demand.

McKinsey notes that Industry 4.0 adoption is becoming a critical differentiator between technology haves and have nots. Accelerating digital transformation is making some companies more resilient to fluctuating market conditions, while those who sit on the side lines only stand to fall further behind.

One strategy the consulting giant points out is implementing what they call quick-win solutions such as technology to ensure safe distancing on the plant floor.

Addressing the talent gap

A 2018 Deloitte report projected the manufacturing skills gap could put $2.5 trillion in manufacturing GDP at risk through 2028, making addressing the shortage a key priority in the coming year. What is more, the ability to implement new technologies such as Industry 4.0 relies on having the skilled workers to run the equipment.

Interestingly, while the manufacturing sector has seen recent job losses, many positions remain unfilled due to the skills shortage.

Improving operational efficiency

As the manufacturing industry continues to reel from the economic impacts of the pandemic, reducing operational costs will remain a top concern for many organisations. Improving operational efficiency is the key to doing more with less, ensuring companies do not lose their hard-won gains through indiscriminate cuts that put key goals at risk.

In any manufacturing plant, a hidden factory exists that continually works against standardisation, quality, and efficiency. A commitment to uncovering hidden factory elements such as undocumented process steps and versioning errors through ongoing verification can improve transparency.

Again, it is an area where digital technologies can help raise visibility, both in terms of identifying problems and highlighting how quality contributes to overall productivity.

Ensuring quality in the face of change

2020 was a turbulent year, and if there is one thing that is for sure about 2021 is that it will involve change. Changes in products, changes in how people work together and even potential changes in the trajectory of the manufacturing industry.

Amid all this change, manufacturers will be faced with the central challenge of maintaining a high level of quality. Product safety and customer satisfaction are as important as ever in the new normal, with the stakes so much higher as companies compete for a smaller piece of the pie.

Managing new products, fewer staff and increased distancing will become a critical capability. Tools like layered process audits (LPAs) can help keep a finger on the pulse of quality while achieving production targets.

All things considered, quality professionals have a crucial role in how the manufacturing industry continues its comeback. By focusing on strategies such as digital transformation, safety, operational efficiency and closing the talent gap, companies can continue to make strides and set a course for operational excellence in 2021.

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