Factory reopens after coronavirus

Is your business ready for the low-touch economy?

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Engineering and manufacturing need to be at the forefront of sectors adapting to new ways of operating in a post-lockdown world.

With 4 July earmarked as the big day when England begins to step forward into a new version of normal life, the question of workplaces is being brought to the foreground. Established processes can’t simply be reinstated, and many within the manufacturing and engineering sectors are struggling to find ways to bring their workforce back into action safely.

Changing these old ‘normal’ processes will be a difficult, but necessary challenge. Not only will working routines change, but social behaviours within the workplace will need to be amended too. Experts have outlined how organisations will need to shift to a low-to-no-touch model as lockdown continues to ease, in order to both re-establish their businesses and balance safety for their workers.

The idea of a ‘low-touch economy’ was coined by the Board of Innovation as a means to predict the future of all businesses in every sector after lockdown. It’s a model firms can use to plan safe and accessible processes for their workers.

Both employees and clients will need to get used to functioning at a distance. For the majority, this will require the implementation of new technology as a way of reducing the amount of physical human contact. This all comes together to emphasise the importance of hygiene awareness. The low-touch economy encompasses this ‘new normal’ idea, and anyone who can’t or won’t adapt — manufacturers and engineers included — risks being left behind.

Forward-thinking manufacturers are already well on their way to making the necessary changes ahead of lockdown easing. Google search volume data shows that searches for the phrase ‘low touch’ went up 75 per cent between February and April this year, while ‘non contact’ rose by 91 per cent. In fact, since last year, ‘low touch’ has increased in search volume by 133 per cent, and ‘non contact’ by 200 per cent year on year. Companies are already taking on advice and research to prepare.

So, how can your manufacturing or engineering business get ready too?

First, stock up. Preparation is important. Now more than ever, manufacturing and engineering businesses will need to keep a close eye on the hygiene and cleanliness of their workplaces. While a daily visit from a cleaning team is good, it will no longer be enough – top-up cleaning throughout the day will become essential, especially in a hands-on environment like a manufacturing shop floor. Surfaces that are frequently touched, such as machines, raw materials, stock boxes, door handles and counters, will need regular wiping down. Make sure you have the supplies to do this – keeping spray cleaner and plenty of disposable blue roll around will encourage employees to give everything a quick wipe-down as they go about their shift.

You’ll need to give your employees appropriate PPE, of course, but be ready to add more to it. Give the option of gloves and face masks if your workplace didn’t require them already before lockdown, and offer the same to any visiting clients or customers.

Hand sanitiser stations should be available to your workers and clients too – place one at the entrance to the building and another at the entrance to the factory floor and canteen. 

When it comes to minimising contact for customers and clients, one area where manufacturers in particular can reduce their human contact is to embrace digital. What has been touted as a shift from a two-to-five-year plan to an eighteen-month scope shows just how important it is for businesses to go digital at last, especially if you’ve been hesitant.

For example, with customers and clients preferring self-service options, switching your sales process to allow for this not only answers your clients’ preferences, but it also helps take a step towards a low-touch revamp of an old method.

Product catalogues can not only be digitised, but woven with smart AI technology that presents the most relevant products to a user first, outdoing and replacing physical booklets and catalogues.

Another shift could be to consider automation within the factory. Robots have been sitting on the sidelines of a workplace overhaul for some time now, but many businesses are already seeing the benefits of the no-touch approach. For example, a delivery service in Milton Keynes uses around 70 robots in its workforce to deliver groceries and food. Having been active in the last two years, the company has noticed a surge of interest after lockdown, mainly towards aspects of hygiene and safety perks over the usual proposition potential. Using robots in your own business is one way to limit the number of hands a product comes into contact with after all.

Depending on the viable space of your manufacturing or engineering firm, you’ll need to make changes in order to accommodate the advised 1m+ rule of social distancing, as such measures are likely to still be in place when businesses are allowed to reopen. If you can’t set out your business to accommodate enough space for your workers, it may well be in your best interests to keep the doors closed until other arrangements can be made.

Alternatively, you may be able to stagger shifts so that there are fewer people on the floor at any one time. This is particularly useful for manufacturers as it can help prevent having too many workers on the production line. Forming teams who work alternate weeks is one way to achieve this while keeping everyone on the payroll to some capacity. If you choose to operate shifts instead, be sure to leave a window of time for the shift switchover to allow for the workspace to be cleaned down before the next group comes in.

This is a difficult period of transition for all businesses, but for hands-on sectors like manufacturing and engineering, it can be more trying than others. Preparation will certainly see you through this storm, so start planning change within your business today – your business can convert to the low-touch economy model with careful planning.

Amy Hodgetts is with healthcare wholesale supplier Fulcare.

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