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Tackling Covid-19 isn’t just a job for big business

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The current pandemic is an opportunity for smaller manufacturers to demonstrate the important part they play in the supply chain, thanks to their ability to adapt quickly to a changing situation.

Many companies are diversifying their manufacturing operations to develop new products to fight the outbreak of Covid-19. We’ve seen Airbus, Rolls-Royce and others using their capabilities to produce ventilators, while retailers such as Gap and Nike have created masks and personal protective equipment, and companies like BrewDog and gin distilleries have been able to produce hand sanitiser. In these challenging times, firms of all kinds are using their initiative and drawing on their manufacturing, supply chain planning and sourcing experience to rapidly make this pivot in production possible.

Although larger enterprises have attracted most of the media attention, the current crisis also provides an opportunity for small to mid-sized manufacturers either to build parts or components that could be used for larger items or to develop products themselves. One example of the latter approach is UK-based Quickchange, which has rapidly shifted its operational focus and accelerated the production and delivery of PPE, including a virus-protection panel, to meet urgent customer needs.

Often, smaller manufacturers are better suited to switch their capacity to making such products. Typically, they can react more quickly to the need for change because their supply chain is less complex than their larger peers.

The speed at which smaller businesses can do this depends on what they currently make. But because of their agility, most can turn their hands to relatively simple products quickly. Often what is needed is a creative approach from the businesses concerned, together with a desire to look for opportunities to help in the fight against Covid-19. Next, they need to look at what skills, machines and production lines they have in place and how they can be adapted to fulfil the current opportunity.

When products are more complex and require a greater volume of people with technical skills to help in the development process, small businesses are less likely to be the primary manufacturer, but they may well have a role to play in developing components. As long as they have the machining tools and the skills to make the components they can adapt quickly to the new role.

Large organisations need to be aware of that and plan to bring in smaller organisations across the supply chain to help with the overall effort. It is important too that these larger manufacturers must adapt and be prepared to work with suppliers who may not be part of their usual supply chain in order to best fulfil new Covid-19-related needs.

There’s clearly a role in the current critical circumstances for smaller manufacturing firms to help in switching to new product lines where there is an urgent need. In doing this they are likely to play a critical role in the fight against this new virus, and in providing critical products to support the health and safety of frontline resources. Their involvement is also likely to bring other benefits.

In the long term, the current scenario may present more opportunities for these businesses, as large manufacturers start to consider that rather than simply choosing the least expensive supply chain option, which may be to opt for a larger partner working in another country, they should factor in the element of risk to supply. That might mean opening up their supply chain to smaller companies based in their own country rather than looking overseas. This shift in strategy could enable a clear business opportunity for smaller manufacturers to fill a gap, to reduce risk and ensure continuity of supply.

Fulfilling this opportunity will almost certainly create challenges for small manufacturers. These businesses are agile in effectively reinventing themselves, but they don’t always have the technology or the skills to support that shift. They need partners that can support them by delivering consultancy and advice; providing technology that is tailored to business need and that can deliver solution-related design and processes, including manufacturing and supply-chain planning. With this kind of support, smaller manufacturers can be even better prepared to take on the significant challenges posed by Covid-19.

Richard Seel is managing director, North America, with delaware .

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