Throughout the current pandemic, it’s been heartening here at WNIE to hear tales of industry pulling together, whether that’s been producing essential medical parts for ventilators, getting involved with the “Engineers for the NHS” project, or assisting with the manufacture of PPE equipment using 3D printers.
Ignys is one such company, and we were pleased to be able to talk to them regarding the introduction of their new initiative – giving one company per week use of one of their engineers for a day.
This resource boost can be used by companies to get new product launches back on track, identify cost savings within their products or help resolve an issue within a product – whatever they want to use the engineer for.
Richard Fletcher, MD and Poppy Sinclair, Sales Engineer, tell us more….
In which ways have you observed the electronics industry being affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?
We’ve seen the Covid-19 pandemic extending and exacerbating component supply chain issues. The timing of the pandemic added to the usual Chinese New Year supply chain pressures. Component stock availability for a variety of parts, mainly passives, reduced and lead times for volume supply of parts increased. Customers which had product lines positively affected by the pandemic saw demand for their product increasing at the same time as component supplies tightened. Alternate sources needed to be identified to ensure production was able to keep up with demand.
Product designs that began just before the pandemic needed additional care. When selecting components we make sure that there are enough short term, low volume devices in production to make prototype units and that selected components have an In Production lifecycle. The issues with supply chain meant that component supply choices were more limited. In some cases this meant designs being driven as much by device availability as getting the ideal device for the application.
Prototype manufacturing experienced some initial disruption. The Contract Electronics Manufacturers we work with had some interruptions to their processes while establishing new, Covid-safe ways of working. Fortunately CEMs typically have a large floor area for production machinery and were able to adjust and in many cases keep production going. Production of prototypes was impacted as manufacturers concentrated on maintaining throughput on the volume production lines and navigated through component shortages, and PCB issues.
The uncertainties at the very beginning of UK lockdown meant that some companies had to put projects on hold and furlough staff to preserve cash and fight for survival. Others had either found applications for their current products to help with Covid-19 related problems such as infection control, social distancing and monitoring or had been inspired to develop a completely new product to help with the fight. Those with Covid-19 related products recognise the urgency of getting product to market quickly while the issue is at the top of businesses agendas.
How has Ignys personally been affected by the crisis as a company?
We’d moved into new offices on the 6th March and had just got everything set up ready to welcome clients, and some of the local technology community, to an office opening event. It became clear that we would instead soon be moving out and working from home as much as possible. We began to take laptops home every evening, rapidly set up a second mirrored server to ensure IT resilience and tried to prepare for whatever developments were communicated on the daily news update. An alarm system, CCTV and window blinds were quickly arranged for security and peace of mind. On the evening of Sunday 15th March I took the decision to move the team out of the new office and to prepare to work at home and by the Tuesday of that week we were out.
Our team of engineers all have access to their own mini-lab space for their own home projects in sheds, garages or spare rooms and where needed and with prior arrangement the office is still able to be used for larger pieces of equipment, prototype SMT reflow, large 3D printer prints and bigger system test set-ups. No-one wants, or is allowed by their other half to have, a 128 node radio network setup around the house so having access to the main office and lab spaces is a real benefit. Visits to the office are, of course, under social distancing rules.
We’ve been quite fortunate so far in the crisis. Our project backlog is usually scheduled 8-12 weeks in advance for the larger development projects. When lockdown hit, some of that backlog was postponed or scaled back, but we had a sufficiently diverse customer base that where some had been negatively impacted, others needed more outsourced electronics and software consultancy to keep up with the new and expected levels of demand. An international client in the middle east wanted to continue product development but due to a total banking shutdown has had to pause their project. Overall this meant that demand had dropped by around 40%. In the first three or so weeks after lockdown was imposed, it was also very apparent to see the lack of new customer enquiries. People were adjusting to the new situation, working out what that meant in their own unique situations and focusing on survival with little thought to future growth.
The reduction of project consulting demand and the complete disappearance of new enquiries was concerning. Cashflow and P&L models were updated, edited and changed on a daily basis as new pieces of information, analytics data and conversations with existing clients continued. After a few days, and sleepless nights, of consideration we had two clear choices to make. We could furlough some of the engineering team to match demand, cut back on costs and wait it out, or we could use the available resource to complete some of our own internal development projects that we never had the time to do when we were busy and to also be available for when customers needed us. We decided to rise to the challenge, keep the full engineering team together and employed, and use the available time on a couple of our own product ideas while closely monitoring the information and trends. More data was gathered and run to get a better sense of what was happening. For instance, our sales engineer Poppy, kept records of how many phones were answered vs how many either rang out or worse could not be connected. The first weeks of lockdown the amount of answered calls vs calls made was around 3% and carried on until the 3 week lockdown extension on 16th April. The answered phone data, together with our Google analytics then started rising. By the end of the fourth week around 30% of phone calls were being answered, not necessarily by decision makers but answered at least. Website activity continued to increase and slowly, new project enquiries began again.
With all of the team working from home, we’ve stepped up our regular communications from a once per week team meeting to a brief daily catch up via Teams. We also have a couple of virtual coffee breaks every week to keep the team connected and help with the effects of isolation. Its not the same as being in the same building, overhearing a project conversation, solving problems in person around a whiteboard and having office banter but it means we can still function effectively. Using Slack for instant messages also helps.
We’ve seen the demand increases continue and are now up to around 70% of pre-Covid-19 levels and rising. We’re keeping a tight watch on what happens but are optimistic that we’re through the worst.
Why did you decide to make the generous offer of the use of one of your engineers for a day?
We’ve seen how much this crisis has affected companies and their employees and wanted to do something to help the UK economy recover. Through our “borrow and engineer” scheme we’ve seen first-hand the impact that a day’s work by one of our engineers can have. We are all in this crisis together, the more that we can do to help each other through it the better the outcome will be for current and future generations.
In what ways do you foresee this engineering support helping UK companies?
The engineering support can be used in a variety of ways. Some ideas are:
- Suggest and quantify product cost reduction possibilities
- Conduct a design review to help minimise product development risks and save time and money prior to prototyping
- Assist with selection of second source components to ease component supply chain problems
- Draft a product requirements specification prior to embarking on a design journey
- Examine the feasibility of a product idea
- Brainstorm solutions to a product problem
- Examine a product field failure
- Measure and identify key areas of power consumption to help increase battery life of products
- Investigate EMC failures and propose improvements
- Talk through a challenging problem with an impartial engineer to open new solution possibilities
Of course, the above depends very much on the complexity of the product or problem in hand.
How do companies find out more and who is eligible?
Take a look at the Ts and Cs on our website at https://ignys.co.uk/free-engineer/