Feature Interview with Altus Group – 2020: The year that industry innovated and overcame

2020…

A challenging year for industry to say the least – and one that has forced companies to adapt by re-evaluating their existing practices and technologies. Over the last weeks we have caught up with industry figures to discuss how leading companies have reacted to and mitigated the global Covid-19 disruption in 2020 and how they will approach 2021 with a renewed mindset.

Kirsty Hazlewood interviewed Joe Booth – Director – Business Development and Marketing, Altus Group Ltd 

 

How did your company initially react to the crisis?

Altus has always worked flexibly, therefore we were agile enough to adapt and change to the crisis. The wellbeing of our staff, their families and our customers was of the upmost priority to Altus so the most important focus was to ensure they were safe.

Thankfully the concept of remote working was one that we already embraced with engineers located across the UK so we could ensure socially distanced working was upheld and therefore did not have to close Altus at all. 

When it came to business we were very fortunate to have had a tremendous 2019 giving us a strong financial position for 2020 with a robust order book for January giving us a reasonable runway. We have been through two financial crashes so far, this is our third.  We pulled through those successfully and we fully intend to do the same this time around.

I think what has really helped is extensive planning from the Altus team. We quickly entered into a scenarios planning stage, gathering information from our customers and Asian suppliers on the impact to business, how would it affect sales, customer production, and what were the important sectors that will boom or bust. 

As a team and with strong relationships with our preeminent suppliers and customers we could ensure business ran smoothly and customers received the service they have come to expect.

We also used the downtime in Q2 and Q3 to become ISO accredited and work on internal processes and training to further focus on support excellence and provide an unrivalled customer service. It was also the perfect opportunity to research and broaden our reach to strengthen our partnerships.

Perhaps the biggest change of direction for us was the focus on customer safety. We saw the negative impact and volatility Covid-19 was causing to our customers and quickly 

explored solutions in staff safety. We developed a range to support our customers 

by introducing technologies proven to screen or kill viruses from leading suppliers including Hikvision, UV Cleanlight and Waterless. This has enabled our customers to continue to work safely. 

Supply chain challenges affecting production were a major consequence of the pandemic – what areas of the supply chain both regionally and product wise were worst hit and how did you overcome the disruption and manage supply chain risk?

As a company we did not see or experience supply chain risk. I can understand that companies moving a lot of inventory may have been affected, but Capex production equipment does not move rapidly so the impact was negligible.  

Of course for logistical companies and large consumer product ecommerce giants like Amazon it may have been a different story, but CEM’s which predominantly makes up the electronics market doesn’t have that intense pressure and certainly OEMs don’t with the length and duration of planning. 

If there were problems with component shortage I would put it down to poor component management systems, stock checking software and mistakes caused my manual operators. The pandemic has really highlighted the importance for automation and the improvement of electronics assembly through ‘Smart’ SMT lines and an even smarter THT lines. 

We are seeing more and more customers choosing to implement equipment which provides this technology and gives users the ability to accomplish tasks which would otherwise be impossible through manual methods, or when staff numbers are reduced. Automated processes also offer precision and consistency improvement, whilst increasing throughput through autonomous methods. 

With exhibitions other face-to-face sales opportunities cancelled, how did you adapt the marketing and sales of your products?

Altus has always been proactive in terms of marketing and brand awareness. We consistently strive to move towards content based marketing and information that our customers will find useful and not just promotional. The move to online and remote marketing seems to have benefitted us in terms of metrics. For example our Linkedin followers have doubled, our sales team have acquired many more connections, and the website has received significantly more visits. 

We already had a very broad range of remote learning capabilities in place, however we wanted to make it even more comprehensive in wake of the Coronavirus. Therefore we set up training courses and product onboarding which is completed online by our engineers or direct from our suppliers. 

We use a shared VPN network or communicate through live audio and video to demonstrate and train customers in our suppliers’ products. This has worked extremely well so far and as enabled customers to understand the equipment from their facility, or even from their own home.

We also utilised our suppliers marketing capabilities and ensured that any new webinars or online events were viewed for technical touch points for current and prospective users. Our suppliers with richer content and engaging videos provided us with a sales tool and helped to bridge to remote selling.

We also developed a new brochure and company presentation to further increase the impact of our digital shop window. We felt it was important to develop the interface between physical and digital sales and have content available that drives transfer of ownership without a physical interaction.

How did you support your existing customers during the lockdown and how successful was this? 

We did everything we could to ensure our customers continued to work through the pandemic by going above and beyond. For example we loaned stock items of equipment to those involved in ventilator challenge so we could help in their endeavour and do our bit to help in the fight against Covid.

The launch of the new safety equipment was also extremely beneficial in keeping business going and mitigate risk. We have sold many thermal screening devices making our customer’s sites safer and help in driving revenues and support whilst typical Capex was slow. 

Another important support offering was the remote training and programming of customer’s systems allowing us to meet their needs for support and applications advice albeit remotely.

Do you believe the COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies to adapt and invent and in fact accelerated innovation?

Certainly, in my view volatility could be replaced with opportunity when you think about the business landscape. Companies that understand their customer needs and are percipient about their value to customers identify ways to be successful and often strive in change. A great example is the CEM organisations that quickly got involved in Ventilator UK or new medical diagnostic products. They secured lucrative contracts to keep production volumes high as automotive and consumer products nosedived. Those that picked up SMT contracts invested in new lines, those that didn’t react fast enough may have found they needed to put all their staff on furlough.

I think the pandemic and subsequent required isolation of workers made the penny drop within manufacturing. The importance of a ‘lights out factory’ is essential to survival. By using humans and not automating processes, you increase risk. Those with automated production lines and fewer operators felt the pinch much less than a factory where all processes are achieved by hand. Furthermore those that are sluggish for digital innovation saw a decline in production and have realised the importance of a digital process.

Another important innovation or change that has emerged is the affect on climate change with remote working and reduced travel. Some would say the world needed the pause on emissions and that it has provided a platform to change direction as we return to normal. Many companies including Altus are revisiting travel policies due to significantly reduced expenses for travel and cost structure savings. Important deals can be sold, negotiated and agreed through a screen in your garage without 14 hour round trip for a 30 mins meeting. This helps to massively reduce emissions and moves towards the government’s policy on electronic vehicles and reducing fossil fuels in the future. 

How do you foresee technologies such as IoT, artificial intelligence, robotics, and 5G future-proofing the industry against possible future disruptive events?

All of those technologies will continue to have a large impact on factories in the UK until all processes are replaced by mechanical and software based technology. 

Every year sensors and robotics become better and automation solutions are constantly evolving to replace operators and their associated cost. Integrations are currently the focus because flexible integration of existing processes that humans are very good at doing are the hardest for AI to master. For many corporations, if the project in capital equipment has a positive net present value or revenue, they will proceed. As costs come down for innovative technologies they will become more common place. 

If we experience new pandemics in the future the automation of facilities will help to 

minimise the impact on society and will be vital infrastructure for future-proofing. 5G will also play a huge part as data aggregation and processing is the key to robot flexibility and real time reactions, prognosis and decision making. 

Has your business model now irrevocably changed and will you continue with some of these changes, even once the world returns to a new normal?

Our business model remains the same. We are however looking forward to seeing our customers again in person when it is safe to do so. I hope that after the pandemic our government has a focus on investing in the manufacturing sector to benefit our economy and to also develop vital technological skills in the UK rather than abroad.