Manufacturing executives share COVID-19 experiences at MEP event

Manufacturing executives share COVID-19 experiences at MEP event

January 13, 2021

Sometimes you just have to go fishing. Seriously. That’s one of the messages manufacturing executives from West Coast and Mountain states passed along during a conversation about their experiences handling the near-term jolt of the COVID-19 pandemic and their expectations of the future.

For them, fishing provides a respite from the intense demands of managing the effects of the combined public health and economic challenges on their businesses. And lucky for two of the manufacturing operations represented, consumers have also opted to go fishing and embrace other outdoor activities as recreational options that allow for necessary physical distancing. Fun fact — we also heard of the increasing popularity of becoming a new pet parent! Anyhow, such decisions, along with a quick pivot into making personal protective equipment (PPE), have helped sustain their businesses and counter losses in other areas.

The four manufacturing executives shared their experiences of the past few months during a September 2020 virtual conversation hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). The conversation was one of 11 listening sessions with leaders of small and medium-sized manufacturing companies. Panelists shared how the events of the past six months have tested their operations and their leadership skills.

One manufacturer of dry suits and underwater survival gear for the military found itself in “survival mode” as pandemic response dominated government spending. A manufacturer serving the aviation industry worried about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on product demand, not expecting recovery until 2022 or later. Another manufacturer of high-end fishing gear suffered an acute falloff in sales early on in the pandemic but quickly enjoyed robust recovery. For a manufacturer of copper oxides and other metal-based chemicals, the pandemic has had no negative effects on operations but comes with the expectation of long-term pain.

Managing Demands

Despite the broad economic slowdown in the wake of the pandemic, the manufacturing executives described a busy period of managing varying, sometimes conflicting, demands. Their first priority was for maintaining the health of their workforces, stressing the importance of taking safety precautions both at work and at home. They tried to understand the difficulties their workers were facing, whether worries about losing their jobs, missing work due to COVID-19 exposure or juggling caregiving concerns for children or elderly relatives and offer reassurances and flexible solutions.

Second, they hurried to maintain the health of their businesses. This meant moving quickly to preserve cash, protect critical, often single-source suppliers and, in some cases, they cut jobs while maintaining critical skills and capacity to move forward. An urge to stockpile inventory of supplies during a period of great uncertainty and disruption put lean disciplines in conflict with business sustainability, a tug of war one executive saw playing out between purchasing personnel and sales managers.

MEP Centers Offer Assistance

The manufacturing executives credited their local MEP Centers in helping them understand and implement safety requirements related to COVID-19, as well as access available stabilizing funds and prevent furloughing of staff. They even pointed to the MEP National Network’s training in continuous improvement and lean practices as putting them in position to withstand “the worst of times.”

They urged the Network to be more visible, particularly for small and medium-sized manufacturers struggling to access available programs of support. They encouraged MEP Centers to tap its Network to connect manufacturers — be they under stress from supply disruptions or from plummeting demand for products — to buy from and support each other. And they encouraged the Network to continue focusing on one seemingly never-ending struggle — workforce. Two of the manufacturing executives said they had already seen their local labor market tighten back up despite a national unemployment rate that exceeded 8%. Finding “good-quality” workers, those with both the aptitude for and an interest in working in a manufacturing environment, continues to be a top-of-mind concern. As one manufacturing executive noted, “It's just finding and retaining good employees.”

Reshoring and Digitization

Although it may be hard to look toward the future when facing near-term survival threats, the participants addressed two forces shaping the future of manufacturing — reshoring and digitization. Reshoring is real, they said. Disruptions in the supply chain have revealed that “sole sourcing offshore is a risky issue.”

Manufacturers, particularly those with limited resources, will need help in sizing up the potential gains of digitally integrated operations. The broad MEP National Network could take a lead in guiding them through the potentially transformative Industry 4.0 transition of machine-to-machine connections and digitized processes. A manufacturing executive put in plainly, saying, “Show us the benefits of Industry 4.0 … and then help us implement it.”

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