November 8, 2021
For the last three months, I’ve been travelling around the United States, connecting with customers who hail from the full spectrum of manufacturing. From facilities owned by huge multinational conglomerates to independent co-manufacturers and private companies, I found I was having very similar conversations about the trends, pressures and pain points of operating in an (almost) post-pandemic America.
Here I share the key trends I’ve seen on the ground and at the coalface.
The pandemic has shaken things up in ways that many of us couldn’t have predicted. One of those is the impact it has had on staffing. In our industry and across many others, businesses simply can’t find or keep staff. While that’s always been an issue, the problem has reached a critical point, with some facilities having to downscale production simply because they don’t have the hands they need on the factory floor.
The feeling is that this is, in part, driven by benefit schemes put in place to support people impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Workers found that by staying home, they were making just as much, or close enough to it. While the subsidy ended a month ago, employers haven’t seen the influx of workers they were expecting. Many are using bonuses for referring and signing-on, and paying more per hour than they would have in the past.
The disruption to communities and schedules adds to the issue. For example, one remote facility said its employees rely on carpooling to get to the site. So, if the driver stays at home, it means the other four people can’t turn up either.
The solution that many employers are turning to is simply to work around the lack of staff. Many purchasing decision-makers are looking for more automation, not just because it can save money on staffing, but it removes the risk of variability.
Delays, costs and new shipping routes
It’s no secret that the COVID crisis has wreaked havoc with supply chains. I saw that for myself from a flight into LA. Out in the harbour, I saw 50-odd boats just sitting there, waiting to get to the port. On those boats, I’m sure, were goods and products that US businesses were desperately waiting for. I suspect this issue alone could create unforeseen changes to the makeup of the country – huge ships are now docking in alternative port towns, and trucks rerouting through sleepy villages.
Even with these changes, getting things from A to B takes time and money. My clients tell me it’s hard to secure a container, and when you do, it can cost four times as much as it once did. You’ll also be waiting a lot longer – what used to take five weeks now takes up to eight.
Trade shows and handshakes are how we do business
We had an amazingly productive time at the PACK EXPO 21 in Las Vegas. The level of attendance and enthusiasm made it clear that while we all accepted having to do business online, it was hardly the preference. Yes, we coped and adapted, but nothing could replace the value of face-to-face.
Particularly in our industry, which has such a long sales cycle and requires big capital commitments, people want to shake hands. They want to know they can trust you. So even if it’s just sitting down and having a coffee, you get the chance to get to know someone. In a virtual meeting, you’re rushed and focused – there isn’t much time to connect.
For us, getting in front of customers means we can better understand their pain points and how we can help. That’s better for our clients, and it’s good for us – it accelerates projects and identifies opportunities we might not otherwise have seen. Catching up with other people is also what makes work enjoyable. The PACK EXPO attendees were getting a chance to see old friends – it wasn’t just about work.
And flexibility is the solution to both
After the year we’ve had, I’m not surprised that hygiene has remained at the forefront of clients’ minds. More people ask how they can build hygiene practices into processes and equipment as standard – rather than an extra step that slows down production. Similarly, the trend for SKU proliferation hasn’t slowed down – customers want variety, and manufacturers are struggling to work out how to deliver on that.
The answer to both issues is, of course, multipronged, but it comes down to flexibility. That starts with equipment you can customise to the way you need to work. Clients are also looking for smaller machines to make more of existing factory spaces, ones that have hygiene features built-in and make changeovers fast and simple.
Rigorous team training is perhaps more of an ask, given the issues with sourcing and keeping staff. It’s why more customers are looking for equipment that reduces the chance of human error and can be used almost without training. It’s part of why I’m seeing so much interest in our V20 melter, which seems to tick a lot of these boxes.