Crisis, what crisis? Four years that shaped Manufacturing Change

By Protolabs


Sometimes it takes huge disruptive events to instigate change and since we’ve been running our state of UK manufacturing industry report with Professional Engineering magazine over the last four years we’ve moved from crisis to crisis. So how has that shaped our industry now and for the future?

Casting our minds back to early 2020 when we were coming out of the turbulence caused by Brexit, our report found some good reasons to be positive.  Plans were in place for digital transformation with almost a quarter planning to invest in the next 12 months and 63% stating that it was necessary for their future.

We still had challenges to face with 88% of respondents saying their business’ manufacturing services were less than 50% automated and many stating that there was a real problem with the workforce and “their attitude toward the changing way of working”.

Little did we know what was just round the corner…


manufacturing shop floor

The Covid years

By the time of our second report, many of us were getting used to a whole new way of working and many businesses had been shutdown or at least on limited production with its workforce on furlough.

There were huge ramifications across all industries.  Our survey showed that the coronavirus pandemic sped up ongoing transitions as business sought efficiency gains to help keep prices down. 

When asked about which words they associated with manufacturing both “robots and automated processes” and “designing” shot up the list compared to the previous year. Not surprisingly three quarters (74.8%) said they expected automation in their business to increase over the next five years, up from 62.5% in 2019.

Move on another year to 2021 and things began to look brighter as we started to come out of lockdown. The economy was recovering and demand was increasing albeit there were some supply chain issues as suppliers only just began to increase their own operations.

The report did highlight that those who did best in the previous year were nimble enough to adapt and people rated responsiveness as one of the most important factors for success.

This was seen with an increased focus on innovation with 41% planning to invest over the course of the next 12 months, compared to just 30% in 2020.  Perhaps this was a sign that businesses wanted to invent their way out of some of the problems facing the world.

Many engineers saw the benefit of remote working with one respondent talking about the “speed of transfer of design concepts and communication, as the greater bulk of work is carried out virtually and remotely.”  Others pointed to the potential of remote monitoring.  Automation also remained a key aim with half of those surveyed expecting it to increase in their business over the next 12 months.


peers collaborating

From one crisis to another

And so, we move to this year’s manufacturing report which has only just been published.  It has become more than apparent that innovation is now much more than just a buzzword.

Covid is still having an effect on our workforce, and supply chains are still disrupted due not only to lockdowns elsewhere but now a war in Europe.  It seems that over the last few years we have seen constant challenges and change – first the after effects of Brexit, then Covid and now energy and raw material shortages.

When it comes to investment over the next 12 months innovation remains in the top spot with 40% of respondents selecting it as one of their most important investment areas – which is actually a slight drop of 1% from last year.

Robots and automation were in the top five phrases associated with manufacturing which suggests an ongoing need to streamline processes.

For many, innovation means a focus on sustainability. Manufacturing is particularly vulnerable to energy market prices and net zero targets plus customer demand means that new processes, materials, energy saving and carbon capture are now firmly on the agenda.

For some industries the question of sustainability is particularly pertinent, notably in consumer electronics.  A different survey from us into this industry reveals that 54% of those asked say that they could go out of business in a few years if they cannot demonstrate their sustainability credentials.

Overall, these turbulent years see manufacturing coming out leaner, fitter and more digitally connected than before. According to one respondent from the Professional Engineering report, “Manufacturing companies can factually define their capabilities, use data to improve, innovate and provide real-time engagement with their customers.”

Challenges undoubtedly remain, but the last four years have shown the importance of agility and constantly adapting to meet new challenges.  It leaves manufacturers better able to meet new challenges head on and not just survive but prosper.