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The manufacturing industry is right at the very spearhead of British innovation. By its very nature, finding innovative solutions to complex technical problems is bound into the DNA of the whole sector. Even so, unprecedented times bring unprecedented challenges, and manufacturing is having to intensify its inventiveness in the face of a vicious, global pandemic.

With huge sections of the UK’s economy running on a pilot light because of COVID-19, manufacturing is looking to re-ignite itself and find a way forward in the New Abnormal of social distancing. There’s a limit to what you can accomplish in the sector while working from home, but threading the needle of government instructions and recommendations is severely challenging. Putting people to work potentially means putting them at risk, and employers in every industry are being forced to make difficult decisions about how to proceed. Manufacturing may be essential – but so is protecting a vulnerable workforce from a disease with neither a cure nor a vaccine on the visible horizon.

Current government restrictions and guidelines lay out the battlefield and general rules of engagement. If it’s safe to continue operating, manufacturing firms should push for employees to work from home wherever possible. Where that’s not realistic, workers should be kept apart using social distancing measures. In some cases, the necessities of the job may mean putting workers back-to-back or side-by-side to minimise face-to-face contact. Hygiene measures, both personal and workspace-related, need to be stepped up and maintained, and all social interaction must be limited through staggered breaks, restructured shifts and other measures. In an industry that depends on close, co-ordinated, high-intensity interaction, this sounds like an absurd wish list – but with lives literally at stake it’s a challenge manufacturing needs to rise to.

It isn’t just a question of managing logistics, either. There’s a critical education angle to consider as well. Workers need to understand exactly what’s expected of them, along with the potential consequences of failing to live up to it. The challenges here stack up early, as even the some of the standard methods of explaining new procedures – meetings, briefing and group Q&A sessions – could easily wind up breaking social distancing rules. Mobile apps and video conferences are starting to take the strain now instead, solving the problem at the cost of a few, relatively minor, added technical hurdles.

For employees who could conceivably work without ever setting foot in a factory, manufacturers need to ensure they have everything they need to remain effective. For those who can’t, appropriate Personal Protective Equipment and other facilities need to be provided. Additional hand wash stations, stricter procedures for moving around the factory and ensuring tools and equipment aren’t shared between employees are all great starts. However, any measure can obviously only be effective if it’s rigidly observed and properly enforced.

Communal areas are another challenging factor, as typical work patterns won’t often allow for 2-metre spacing between tables and so on. Canteens, meanwhile, have the additional consideration of food safety to contend with. In both cases, there are some innovative solutions already in play, such as acrylic screens. As always, though, effectiveness is determined by how consistently the rules are explained and followed. In all cases, there needs to be easy access to things like hand sanitiser, disinfectants and cleaning products.

It’s important to keep in mind that we’re dealing with much more than just the immediate crisis here. For one thing, it’s not at all clear yet that COVID-19 is just a one-time adversary. There’s no iron-clad guarantee of an effective vaccine, nor even that lasting immunity is even a likely outcome. It’s entirely possible that we’re looking at a new, upgraded “seasonal flu” situation. We can’t count on COVID-19 disappearing, or that it’ll be the last virus of its kind and scale that we’ll be facing. Manufacturing, just like any other industry, needs to adapt. That means leaning into its ingrained aptitude for innovation and accelerating some of the changes that are already underway.

Looking at the challenges thrown into manufacturing’s path by the COVID-19 outbreak, one of the biggest shocks felt by the industry comes from the sheer universality of its impact. The demand for products, the ability to supply them and the workforce available to produce them have all been hit at the same moment, and on a global scale. Some manufacturers have seen an enormous leap in demand from panic buyers, while others have seen the call for their products plummet. Meanwhile, businesses that are heavily dependent on overseas suppliers have been struggling to adjust – or even to meet their basic day-to-day needs.

Again, though, the spirit of innovation driving manufacturing is pivotal. Developments behind remote diagnostics and long-distance collaboration are suddenly being thrown into sharp focus at a time when social distancing requirements risk costing manufacturers up to half their on-site workforce. It’s already being predicted that virtually unstaffed, fully automated factories are an inevitable future for the manufacturing industry. That future may be getting ever closer and more necessary in the face of COVID-19. Automation offers enormous advantages in so many areas of manufacturing that it’s almost ridiculous to argue that it won’t keep on growing in prominence. Continual advances in everything from remote collaboration technologies to Artificial Intelligence are only strengthening automation’s hand – enhancing safety, ensuring precision and reducing both operating cost and financial risk at every step.

The thing is, this cybernetic sci-fi scenario doesn’t even need to arrive for the new realities (both Augmented and Virtual) it offers to find their full place in a post-pandemic manufacturing sector. Augmented Reality training and collaboration are already embedding themselves in industries like construction, putting real-time access to expertise within reach for workers, even when the experts themselves are being kept away. The merging of Augmented and Virtual Reality technology is already having an impact in manufacturing, with businesses seizing the benefits they present for getting employees up to speed before they ever set foot in a factory.

It’s clear that the challenges of restarting manufacturing while working within social distancing and other safety frameworks won’t be going away any time soon. However, the industry’s in a stronger position than many in terms of pushing ahead with innovative ideas and a pioneering mentality. All innovation carries risk – but in this case the risks of inaction are far greater. There’s everything to gain from putting the sector’s biggest ideas to the test, and a huge cost, both financial and human, attached to standing idle. That’s the challenge facing manufacturing right now, but it’s a challenge the industry’s almost uniquely qualified to attack.