As the coronavirus COVID-19 spread around the globe and cases mounted in the UK, many hoped that this would be a transient crisis and that life would return to normal. It has become very clear that we are a long way from any sort of normal. The question for industry, and for the country, is whether this is a new era, not just a new normal.
Scott Steedman CBE FREng
As the global pandemic broke, engineers in industry and academia responded to a shortage of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) with speed and agility. Suddenly everyone was talking about PPE, an essential clinical need that, like manufacturing, we had previously taken for granted. The breakdown in global supply chains forced the government rapidly to rethink established processes for procurement and regulatory approvals. For their part, manufacturers quickly adapted production lines to meet new demand through both re-engineering old products and innovation.
The immediate crisis may be receding but there are many lessons to be learned. The nation is still in a fragile state. Despite heroic efforts to support the country, the nationwide shutdown has left companies facing a dire future as they struggle to restart operations. The nation clapped for the NHS, now it must cheer for industry, for critical infrastructure workers, for financial services, for everyone going to work to rebuild the economy. Without a concerted effort to champion safe working guidelines that help us get back to work, reoccupy facilities and rebuild broken supply chains, UK industry will lose out in the global market as other countries exit lockdown and resume business.
Beyond recovery lies renewal. Will the world after COVID-19 see a new understanding, a coming together of nations determined to shape their economic renewal in a different way to the past? Globalisation based on minimum cost and token attempts at sustainable development, already under question before the pandemic, has gone. In its place there should be an international consensus that global crises need global solutions. The UK is well positioned to play a leading role in this rethink. As one of the most innovative countries, our science and engineering can underpin national renewal.
We must resist any temptation to use the pandemic as an excuse to cut investment to recoup the cost of lockdown. Instead, we need to accelerate investment in infrastructure, telecommunications, energy, and high-speed rail. We must tackle the productivity gap with massive deployment of digital technologies, supported by full-fibre broadband, across the UK. Only then can we mobilise our human capital effectively.
Digital home-based employment works for some, but the COVID-19 crisis has forced industry into a ‘new normal’ for which it was largely unprepared. It will take a nationwide programme of training and skills development, for employees and employers, if we are to learn to use the online workplace effectively. Virtual meeting platforms have provided some continuity for business but cannot be an adequate long-term solution. Already the UK’s online gaming industry is adapting its world-leading software skills to support employers as they switch to the new ways of working.
Supply chain resilience, operational resilience and information resilience will be key to industrial success after COVID-19. UK engineering companies need to develop trusted, diverse supply chains, secure digital platforms, and a flexible and connected workforce. We need to ‘Build Back Better’, build back green and lead the drive for net zero carbon emissions in our own operations and across every supply chain.
National renewal must put engineers and engineering at the heart of any future industrial strategy. No longer should we treat manufacturing as an unloved, aged relative, but as an integral part of the future economy. Empowering people to participate in the new global market for products and services will require completing the transition to an information economy, connecting people to companies. Bringing innovative ‘factory in a box’ solutions to towns and shopping centres, tying together flexible manufacturing and information technologies, could unlock local creativity and build on the volunteer spirit seen throughout lockdown.
We thanked healthcare workers for their extraordinary commitment in our national time of need. Now we need to cheer for industry and for economic recovery and renewal.
Scott Steedman CBE FREng