How Has a Global Pandemic Shaped the UK's Subcontract Purchasing Landscape?

Sarah is a sales & marketing content writer, with eight years of experience within the engineering & manufacturing industry.  Working both at Qimtek and on a freelance basis, she can usually be found hammering away at a keyboard or with her head in a pile of engineering drawings. 

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world beyond recognition in just a few short months. Every corner of the globe has been affected by both the pandemic itself and the national lockdowns that ensued in many countries. The UK manufacturing industry found itself in a strange situation - while it was hit hard by the pandemic, it was also one of its saviours. The Ventilator Challenge consortium, consisting of some of the biggest names in UK manufacturing across all manner of verticals, was responsible for manufacturing over 13,000 ventilators in just 15 weeks, arming the UK with the medical devices it would need to tackle a worst-case scenario of the pandemic. 

However, existing supply chain issues were brought to the fore by the COVID-19 pandemic, placing them under the microscope for scrutiny by the industry at large. It's probably fair to say that UK manufacturing is still feeling the effects of supply chain disruptions and almost unquestionably, there have been a lot of changes as a result. While the UK government talks of everyday life adapting to a 'new normal', the UK manufacturing industry is also adjusting itself to overcome its own issues. So, what does the 'new normal' look like from a purchasing and supply chain standpoint?

READ: Ventilator Challenge UK - Over 13,000 Ventilators Manufactured In Just 15 Weeks

Taking the Bigger Picture Into Account:

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of 'value-adds' such as a short lead time and good quality.

While price is always going to be a consideration when purchasing for any industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of 'value-adds' such as a short lead time and good quality. Paying rock-bottom prices was not enough to sustain manufacturers through the challenges of the last few months - in fact, the buyers who paid more to have a local supply chain in place found themselves saddled with far less problems than those with suppliers based farther afield. A higher price usually also correlated with a rise in quality, which meant fewer delays while errors were rectified. These factors meant that some manufacturers were able to carry on with their projects more or less as normal, while others found themselves held up due to a lack of stock - whether materials, components or consumables.

Companies operating under lean or JIT models also found themselves tackling a myriad of issues. Without any 'fat' to tide them over, production found itself at the mercy of supply chains, meaning that any delays were more pronounced and led to more downtime. While these models are usually successful in increasing productivity and efficiency, unprecedented circumstances (such as those experienced this year) expose the chinks in the armour of such production setups, illustrating why they are so difficult to universally implement across the industry as a whole.

READ: COVID-19 - When Are the UK's Engineering Exhibitions Taking Place?

An Increase in Reshoring:

The COVID-19 pandemic punctuated a time period in which the UK manufacturing industry was already turning its attention to reshoring. After the allure of low prices was successful in enticing a number of manufacturers to overseas suppliers for decades, the past few years have seen a resurgence in the use of UK suppliers. In fact, the UK is now the ninth largest manufacturing company in the world in terms of output, which speaks volumes about the increase in manufacturing activity here.

READ: Why Are So Many Manufacturing Companies Returning Production to the UK?

The current trend towards reshored manufacturing is unlikely to change any time soon.

Those with overseas supply chains - especially those based in China, where COVID-19 originated - were hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic. China is the largest manufacturing nation in the world and its own lockdown in early 2020 created ripples throughout almost every other industry across the globe. With production having either slowed or ceased completely at the start of the year as the COVID-19 virus emerged and took hold, companies worldwide found themselves without the supplies they needed to operate. This shed more focus on the benefits of a national supply chain. Even many of the companies who were reluctant to reshore eventually had to do so out of necessity.

We're far from being out of the grasp of the pandemic, which means that the current trend towards reshored manufacturing is unlikely to change any time soon. With the threat of a second wave, many manufacturers will be keen to keep their national supply chain if only as a contingency. The need for quality components and supplies within a set timeframe now far outweighs the benefits of a cheaper price.

National Opportunities:

The events of 2020 have allowed the UK manufacturing industry to be judged on its own merits, instead of price alone.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has given the UK manufacturing industry its own fair share of problems, it could also provide an opportunity to accelerate the frequency of reshoring dramatically. UK suppliers for all types of processes - whether machining, fabrication, sheet metal, or plastic moulding amongst others - are now very much in national demand. 

The events of 2020 have allowed the UK manufacturing industry to be judged on its own merits, instead of price alone. The benefits of quality and a fast turnaround have never been more essential; the shift towards these factors as a necessity instead of a luxury amongst buyers, will no doubt lead to the formation of professional relationships that far outlast the lifespan of the pandemic itself.

READ: Will COVID-19 Lead to Reshoring Within the UK Manufacturing Industry?

Finding UK Suppliers:

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