Roxburgh EMC’s Tom Downing reflects on what the COVID pandemic has meant for his sector.
These days I find myself remembering a conversation I had with a friend years ago. She worked in the public sector and had spent the day wargaming the next pandemic. This was in the days when we thought a new strain of influenza would most probably cause the next pandemic.
I said to my friend, “How bad can it be? It’s just the flu.” “Imagine if suddenly 30% of hospital staff were too sick to work at the same time as the admission rate doubles, or trebles,” she said. “What do you think would happen if 30% of the people who deliver food to the shops were unable to work or if 30% of the people who run a power station didn’t turn up one day? The real problem with a pandemic is economic with job losses on a huge scale.” I took her point, but I didn’t let it trouble me because there wasn’t going to be a pandemic.
When, 12 years later, the pandemic hit, I was pre-primed to be scared for the economy and the thousands of jobs potentially at risk in UK manufacturing, including my own. Back in early 2020, business was already tough in the UK electronics industry, and I wondered if I could survive in my own role along with my colleagues and customers.
Thereafter followed a fascinating series of events, and dare I say it, from a business perspective, it has not been as bad as it could have been.
The first real business effect was a disruption to supply coming from China. Chinese New Year was extended, and factories re-opened late at reduced capacity. This effect was short-lived, and our suppliers were, magnificently, back up to full speed very quickly. Our CNY stocks tided us over – just.
The next thing that happened is that we all wanted to help. I poured over ventilator design specifications and faced facts that we did not have broad enough capabilities to do it alone. We did what we could; we 3D printed visor mounts, worked from home where possible and made our factories COVID safe. The enquiries then flooded in for the products we have that can be used in medical device manufacture, medical-grade EMC filters, sealed enclosures, power connectors etc. I foolishly wondered if this pandemic would be a good thing for our industry. Then as quickly as it started, it ended. Those in power seemed to work out that there was no need for large amounts of new ventilators.
Meanwhile, the factories that were still open needed regular reassurance that their delivery schedules would be met whilst others completely shut, leaving us short of that one little fastener or washer required to complete the build. Thankfully this meant we were busy.
As spring turned to summer, we saw a new effect. There was an upturn in construction – we saw this via our ventilation equipment manufacturers. Also, companies making products that you can use at home had a mini boom. DIY workshop equipment and high-end home audio saw good growth, benefiting our small EMC filters and professional audio connectors business.
It was around this time that I noticed another positive effect. Some companies were using the quieter period to tackle larger, progressive projects. Distributors were examining their product ranges strategically, adding missing lines and improving product listings whilst OEMs were dusting off shelved projects and starting new ones.
Then there was the really good stuff – companies making COVID related products. We have seen a rash of new applications for our products in air and water purification utilising UV light. The drivers for UV lamps create noise, and our EMC filters were well placed to help reduce it. These projects necessarily moved at a turbocharged pace and turned into orders in record time.
Whilst we ended 2020 down on where we wanted to be, we are still here with some new customers and projects and enough positive news to keep us optimistic. I am not sure I have ever been so glad to have stumbled into the electronics industry all those years ago, given the unimaginable hardships endured by so many of our fellow human beings.