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SuiteWorld 2019: The shifting landscape of the manufacturing industry

At SuiteWorld 2019, the managing director of OSL Cutting Technologies told Computer Weekly about the shifting skills needs of the manufacturing industry, the increased importance of data, and the impact this has on businesses

Data is becoming increasingly important to manufacturing, and automation is already affecting jobs and skills inside and outside of the industry, according to Mat Grey, managing director of OSL Cutting Technologies.

At SuiteWorld 2019, Grey shared details of the firm’s partnership with NetSuite, as well the company’s attitude towards employees as automation changes the skillsets needed in almost every industry.

OSL Cutting Technologies has been using NetSuite since 2015 to make it easier to properly use information for its business decisions.

Grey says that not being able to leverage information was a common problem for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), including OSL Cutting Technologies, at the time. As the firm began to grow through acquisitions, it became important to be able to leverage its own data, as well as to easily plug new businesses in.

Areas that the company wanted to focus on when it went to market for a new cloud-based system were the purchase of raw materials, product manufacturing, internal distribution, acquisitions and customer relationship management (CRM).

OSL Cutting Technologies has not always been focused on manufacturing. According to Grey, the firm’s previous business model of buying and selling was far simpler.

“In manufacturing, you have datasets within datasets,” says Grey. “There are many more components that data moves through, so there’s a lot more to gather.”

OSL chose NetSuite because it met its three main requirements: the ability to quickly and easily adapt the system as the business scales, the ability to easily integrate new business into the system as they are acquired, and to have a global presence.

“That’s what led us to Oracle. Our first decision was cloud or no cloud – we chose cloud,” says Grey. “Our next question was, ‘What platform is going to give us the real advantage going forward?’”

The firm reduced five systems into one, which Grey describes as “painful” due to the differences in how data was previously collected.

“Accuracy for manufacturers is monumental,” he says. “You’ve got to get things right as a manufacturer, so your data clarity and control is huge. It is massive to us.”

Now OSL Cutting Technologies has its data consolidated into a single system. It is able to help other parts of the OSL Group to focus on what they’re good at, rather than systems implementation.

“We can do that for you – we can buy for you on most of your items. You just focus on what you’re good at, which is the technical elements, the specific data that requires sales, the manufacturing elements,” says Grey.

If we can pre-empt and pre-warn, it’s going to reduce cost and allows us to maintain machines and run them for longer
Mat Grey, OSL Cutting Technologies

The firm is also working on the possibility of predictive maintenance of equipment in partnership with the AMRC technical hub in Sheffield, attached to a local university.

Currently, the data OSL collects from its machines, many of which are quite old, isn’t very insightful when it comes to explaining why a problem occurred.

Overcoming this is becoming easier, however, as machines are replaced and sensors are more likely to be built into new machines.

“It’s back to efficiency. If we can pre-empt and pre-warn, it’s going to reduce cost and allows us to maintain machines and run them for longer,” says Grey.

The truth about automation’s impact

The increased need for data is hardly a surprise in the manufacturing sector as machines become more “intelligent”, collecting and acting on data. But this increased intelligence can also put some roles at risk.

Manufacturing has been flagged as one of the industries affected by automation, and – in many cases – machines have replaced people altogether.

Grey says there’s a “level of truth” in the idea that some jobs are under threat as a result of automation and artificial intelligence (AI), but for OSL Cutting Technologies, it has only meant a shift in the type of people it hires.

“What you’re actually doing is changing the skillset requirement of your business,” says Grey. “Instead of someone picking something up and moving it from A to B, you now need a person who can programme robots, or an employee who can see where the automation needs to be in your business. There’s just a skillset shift.”

According to Grey, OSL Cutting Technologies’ fast pace of growth, plus the changing skills needs of the market, means the firm is taking on more employees, but the type of roles they are recruiting for are “very different”.

“We’ve built a team now that’s just made up of coders to control all of the data systems and implementations. That team didn’t exist two years ago,” he says.

But there will still be a loss of certain types of roles, and Grey admits the type of people who are more likely to be automated out of the workplace are those in increasingly “less skilled jobs”.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of everyone, says Grey, who believes businesses need to “balance the humanistic alongside the commercial demands of the landscape”.

While businesses need to look at the best ways to make more cash, they also need to consider the people working for them. “Where you can, making decision that don’t hurt your employees too much while protecting people is an informed part of business,” says Grey.

Wherever possible, Grey advocates retraining existing employees, or redeploying them to different parts of the business.

Grey, using a hypothetical employee called John, gives an example of how OSL is a business that will “do as much as possible to preserve long-standing employees”.

“Wherever we can, we want to keep people, and people already have a lot of knowledge inside their head that we want to leverage,” he says. “John’s worked for ages, and if we get rid of [an old machine], we’ll have to get rid of John too, and we don’t want to get rid of John.”

For example, if John’s machine produces 30,000 units, and a new automated machine will produce 120,000 units, as long as the firm’s sales team can sell the full capacity, there is no need to eliminate John’s job. But John must also be willing to put the effort in.

“The reality is, if John doesn’t want to learn something new, John’s in trouble. That’s just the world – if you’re not willing to evolve with it, then you’re going to struggle. You can only do so much to support people, but where we can’t, unfortunately, people lose jobs and move on.”

Moving from hypothetical to reality, Grey says the business keeps a “skills matrix” of all of its employees, and knows who is likely to be at risk in the future.

“Our business model is not to look at it and think, ‘Where can we kill cost and get rid of people?’. It’s looking at where can we build competencies and capacity to be able to service the market better, and then transitioning people accordingly,” he adds.

The best plan for Brexit

Planning for the increased need for digital skills has been a concern for many industries. This is especially true in the wake of Brexit, with experts saying that an increased focus on home-grown talent will be the best way to avoid growing skill gaps.

While OSL Cutting Technologies is well prepared for adapting to the skills it will need in the wake of automation, it believes the best plan for preparing for Brexit is flexibility.

Grey says those who have a “massive Brexit strategy” are “wasting their time and talking rubbish”.

How do you prep for [Brexit] ambiguity? You might as well just be reactive and responsive
Mat Grey, OSL Cutting Technologies

“How do you prep for ambiguity? You might as well just be reactive and responsive,” he says. “So when something happens, we will be the fastest to move. That’s our game plan.”

OSL Cutting Technologies has the preparations in place to react quickly once solid decisions have been announced, including a warehouse in the Netherlands, a flexible supply chain and tweaked stock models.

Those who can’t be flexible will be left behind, which is true of both reacting to changes such as the UK leaving the European Union, and the shifting skills needs of the nation.

Adopting NetSuite has been part of OSL’s shift towards a more reactive business model, according to Grey.

“NetSuite have allowed us to do things in our business we would not have been able to do. I’ve never had something that’s kind of an external thing be so core to our business model,” he says.

“Most core things are like our people, our culture, but these guys are absolutely fundamental to what we’re doing going forward, so it is a huge thing. Anyone who’s not looking at the business that way are dinosaurs and they’re going to be in trouble.”

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