Features - Business

Manufacturing Success During a Pandemic

Chris Stanley is Housing Manager at Concrete Block Association (CBA), in this latest feature for UKCO, he writes about how the concrete block sector has responded to an unusual 2020 and how it has evolved to meet the various challenges COVID has presented.

COVID-19 continues to affect the construction sector. From contractors and housing developers to builders’ merchants and product manufacturers, everyone has felt the pressure. Whilst recent ONS figures indicated the industry has started to bounce back; we are still not out of the woods yet.

However, UK construction and housebuilding has frequently shown its resilience during tough times. I think, on this occasion, we have employed the lessons previously learned to protect and preserve the industry’s welfare and longevity. This especially applies to manufacturers.

Strategic decisions taken early on in the pandemic, robust safety procedures implemented and ability to maintain healthy stock levels has meant builders have not lacked for materials over the last eight months.

The concrete block manufacturing companies are no exception. As another nationwide lockdown hits, I’m confident measures taken and implemented already by our members will guarantee a healthy supply of product over the remaining months of 2020 and beyond.

Here, I want to dig a little deeper, showing how we (just one of many industries) have consistently maintained healthy output levels during these uncertain times, perfectly equipped to meet the ongoing needs and requirements of the UK construction community.

Successful Strategy

Since the original lockdown in March, we’ve been in close contact with our members, supporting them and getting a full picture of their reactions and response. From the outset, all implemented robust contingency plans to mitigate the impact and protect supply chains.

From the contractor perspective, concerns around stock shortages were always going to be an issue. As such, our members ensure their yards were stocked with a few months’ worth of blocks. This guaranteed supply chain security and the availability of materials. It’s has been essential to meet the unusual spikes and fluctuation in product demand caused by the original, and subsequent regional lockdowns.

As any building product manufacturer will know, maintaining a healthy reserve of stock is good practice in normal times, in these unusual circumstances, it’s proved essential.

Safely Does It

Of course, worker safety remains the primary concern for our members in the current circumstances. The good news is we have, albeit gradually, been able to ramp back up to near full capacity over the last six months.

In fact, in some cases, production continued through lockdown to service a handful of urgent construction projects still operating during lockdown. However, not before the correct safety protocol and procedures were implemented according to HSE and PHE guidance.

Aside from the installation of physical signage and the application of clear demarcations to encourage social distancing, the latest PPE has and continues to be provided to ensure workforce receive maximum protection.

Additionally, temperature checks are carried out regularly to ensure no potentially infected person enters the working areas and puts on-site personnel health at risk.

Protective measures are also applied when delivering materials. Our members continue to work closely with their clients and hauliers to create a secure, COVID-free supply chain in which loading and unloading can occur efficiently, without compromising the safety of any staff involved.

The back office is also subject to strict health and safety guidelines and, where possible, people are carrying out day to day business from home. However, for those who can’t, office spaces have been adapted nationwide to allow a limited number to work in a safe environment.

With these measures already implemented, our members are more than prepared to face another lockdown with minimal disruption to work.

An Innovation Evolution

Long-term investment in innovation also limited levels of disruption with the production of concrete blocks predominantly automated. This meant manufacturers could quickly limit the number of people required in the factory at one time.

Sales have also moved online, with new apps allowing housebuilders and contractors to call off more stock instantly. Harnessing the power of the Internet of Things (IoT), new technology means these orders can be sent directly to a pre-programmed manufacturing line which can run off the required number of blocks in an instant.

The situation caused by the ongoing pandemic has tested our members’ technological capabilities and for the most part, they remained resilient. No doubt the experience will encourage block manufacturers to analyse current capabilities and incorporate further digital solutions to improve efficiency and safety in the production process.

Of course, it will be important to work with our various audiences across the construction ecosystem to develop solutions tailored to their needs and requirements.

Local Hero

Concrete blocks are a locally produced product with a small chain; this has meant we have been able to process new stock and have it delivered rapidly, according to the demand spikes witnessed over the last few months.

It’s estimated any site is at most only 10 miles from either a builders’ merchant or concrete block manufacturers yard. This is one of the main reasons our members have been able to remain stable and resilient in the tough climate, successfully responding to large and small orders.

Furthermore, all the raw constituents for UK-manufactured blocks are regionally excavated, or sourced, in areas local to manufacturing facilities. This means our members were not dependent on imported materials, which significantly affected stock levels for a number of building product categories (Brexit is likely to exacerbate this further).

Continuous Conversations

During times of uncertainty, the importance of maintaining a regular dialogue with your customers and suppliers is crucial, it cannot be understated.

Specifically, our members have highlighted how farming the relationships with their existing clientele, listening to their challenges and offering solutions which go above and beyond has kept order books healthy.

Working flexibly and empathetically, UK concrete block manufacturers have been able to support the construction industry, ensuring this vital sector returns to pre-COVID levels of output as soon as possible.

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