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What happens next?

Businesses that have survived the pandemic are starting to ask: what happens next? It is a good question and one not just relevant to the UK.

Hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP) in the US, a conversation across 600 companies revealed just what a nightmare 2020 turned out to be for our American counterparts. There are stories of how manufacturers “scrounged for information just to keep their workers safe”. Others “scrambled to rework production lines to allow for physical distancing” and, when a few workers tested positive from COVID-19, whole production lines had to be closed with healthy workers sent home as a precaution. The result was that hours, and therefore benefits, had to be cut and jobs were lost. Sound familiar?

It is no consolation to learn that we shared a lot of similar experiences here in the UK, but it does show that we were not alone in not knowing what to do in a situation that none of us had ever faced before – but we did know we needed to take rapid action. The good news is that we have all learned a great deal from the experience – about ourselves, our workforce, about the value of strong, clear leadership and what can be achieved in the face of such adversity. We have also witnessed first-hand the power of technology and what a central role it will play in shaping all our futures.

But the American study also carried a warning. In our efforts to bounce back to health using digitally connected machines and sophisticated software, companies, especially SMEs – should not be pushed into technology that does not suit their environment or specific needs. Installing AI and robotics does not come cheap; money will be needed not just to acquire the technology, but to train staff to be able to use it effectively.

As one of the respondents in the US study said: “I am fearful, if not done well, that we will push technologies out to SMEs with this hope that technology will magically make them better at what they do. We need to make sure we don’t lose focus on good process design and sound, operational and organizational strategies.” Wise words.

After a challenging 2020, we are seeing signs that the industries we serve are beginning to open up; we are seeing real growth again which hopefully will continue. The investments we made in technology prior to the pandemic are paying off, we’re in good shape to face the future.