There’s no doubt that Covid-19 has fundamentally impacted every single business this year, with some coming out of the situation ahead, but many understandably struggling. Whereas with financial crashes, there are tremors before the big event, disruption like this is difficult, if not impossible, to predict. As such, many companies were caught out by seismic changes to their usual processes, both internally and through relationships with third-party suppliers.
One particular area that took the hit more than most was the global supply chain. As China hunkered down to mitigate the effects of the virus, it caused a spiraling effect that disrupted a substantial cross-section of companies usually reliant on that supply of products and equipment to operate like clockwork. With Chinese partners unable to work due to the pandemic, companies across the world, including the UK, were unable to keep up with the demand for certain products – like pasta and toilet roll – that grew exponentially as the virus hit the UK.
With the world’s supply chain brought to a standstill almost overnight, it begs the question for countries like the UK, how can we ensure we put the necessary steps in place to stop this happening again? While there is unlikely to be as serious a disruption on the scale of Covid-19 for a long time, other factors such as cyber-attacks are an ongoing threat that can bring companies, or industries, to their knees. This is precisely why the UK needs to be prepared for the next big event.
In order to anticipate potential disruption, much like the financial crisis, companies must become aware of the warning signs. However, most businesses do not have the systems in place and in many ways are flying blind in the face of potential danger. So, what can be done?
The future’s bright, the future’s automated
Over the next few years, we’ll start to see a growing call for increased investment within automation, particularly in the manufacturing sector, which will benefit manufacturers in numerous ways. Firstly, increased automation will allow UK companies to bring their production capabilities back onshore and reduce the reliance on one supplier –in many cases, China.
In addition, automation will ultimately enable manufacturers to maintain production 24/7, keeping the lights on at all times and not losing out on any potential downtime when workers sign off for the day. Integrating automation into the workforce may come at an initial big investment but, long-term, it can boost productivity and efficiency.
As well as investing in automation, cloud enabled big data and analytics must become a key weapon in any company’s arsenal for the road ahead. The world is producing more data than ever before, and it is tapping this that will set companies apart. The insights that understanding this data can bring are attractive, from being able to anticipate demand for products as sales start to go up, to being aware of potential issues before they arrive. For example, if sales data indicates a spike in pre-sale orders for a certain product, companies can respond accordingly and co-ordinate with their supply chain to increase stock orders to meet that demand.
To do this most effectively, companies must start making their products and systems intelligent, so they produce the insightful data required. From a supply chain perspective, this means integrating software to be able to see data in real-time as equipment and products travel from the factory to the store or warehouse. Through an intelligent supply chain, companies will be able to see any problems occurring from lack of equipment, parts or delays in travel sooner than ever before and swiftly mitigate any issues. This also brings the focus of investment back to automation. Creating intelligent robots that can talk to each other on the factory floor can help speed processes across assembly and delivery along the supply chain.
Making products intelligent by integrating the necessary software within them is vital and will pay dividends long-term. This will equip companies with previously unseen insight into how their products are actually being used by customers. This powerful insight will furnish companies with an understanding of what aspects of products to develop and which services are essentially being wasted. For example, maybe the voice-activated capability a company spent months developing isn’t being used, but instead the Wi-Fi-enabled services are. Companies will gain precious insight into where they should be developing their products, optimizing them based on how customers are actually using them.
Investing in tech talent
With cloud platform and software investment and data analytics set to be a key part of every business’s supply chain moving forward, it is vital that they have the skill sets within the company to take advantage. It is no use having all the data if the skills don’t exist to extract the insights. In this role, companies need to build capability in big data and analytics, even extending further into machine learning and artificial intelligence. These strategic competencies enable them to drive intelligence from data and tangibly create insights to enhance the company’s decision-making process.
Like the rest of the world, the UK has long faced a substantial tech skills gap, meaning this talent is hard to come by and could cost billions if not addressed. To overcome this, businesses need to re-look at how they can build up the talent supply that can propel them forward.
Firstly, businesses need to invest in training their workforce on software development and data analytics – enabled by the cloud and modern data platforms. Doing so can be quicker than searching elsewhere with employees already familiar with company processes so don’t need to be brought up to speed. With software and data analytics set to be the staple of business strategy for years to come, companies should also look to the future supply talent pipeline. Investing in apprenticeships and graduate programs can ensure the company has access to the next generation of talent and a steady supply of expertise for decades.
Ultimately, Covid-19 is likely to be the most disruptive event to emerge in generations. However, that does not mean once it is over that disruption is done with once and for all. Businesses need to heed the lessons that are coming out of the pandemic and ensure they are putting the right processes in place to build a resilient supply chain to counteract future disruptions. Investing in technology, particularly cloud, software and data analytics, and ensuring they have the talent to match will enable companies to survive and thrive through challenging times.
Dan Farrell, Industry X Technology Lead, Accenture in the UK & Ireland