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Flexible manufacturing when it counts

-- Success Story --

Flexible manufacturing when it counts

Almost a third of UK manufacturers have seen orders decline by up to 50% since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report by Make UK. Not only that, but many firms say it could take up to 12 months to return to normal trading conditions.

Despite these bleak predictions, some manufacturers have been able to turn their fortunes around with a combination of resourcefulness, flexibility and passion.

Necessity is the mother of innovation

When the COVID-19 outbreak forced the UK into lockdown, Ramfoam, a Birmingham-based polyethylene and polyurethane foam convertor, felt the effects almost immediately.

“Our customers operate in sectors that were some of the hardest hit, such as aviation, retail, hospitality and automotive,” says Tim Mulqueen, Group Sales Director at Ramfoam.

“Naturally, this had a knock-on effect on our business as well, and we realised that we were going to have to do something different in order to keep going. We adapted immediately and, fuelled by a strong desire to support the NHS, Ramfoam quickly developed a new PPE product.

Since their request for more firms to manufacture PPE, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was overwhelmed with applications, and struggled to handle the 14,500 offers of help received from willing businesses.

Ramfoam’s products were already used in medical applications, and Tim and his team were able to mobilise their existing facilities and resources in a very short space of time to develop RamfoamCare+, a protective face visor and foam headpiece that front-line staff can assemble in seconds.

The firm were able to manufacture the foam headpiece using their existing kit and expertise, and in May 2020, Ramfoam were successful in being awarded a contract to produce 3 million RamfoamCare+ kits per week.

Bending over backwards

Ramfoam have invested heavily in new machinery and facilities in order to reach the 3 million items required per week - it took a herculean effort to get the product ready in such a short period.

“Developing a new product for market normally takes up to a year, but we were able to design and develop the product, source suppliers, patent the design and get it certified within just five weeks,” Tim explains.

According to Tim, there were several elements that enabled Ramfoam to adapt to the changing environment so quickly and effectively.

  • Multi-skilled workforce: Ramfoam were already undertaking a reskilling process when COVID hit. This meant they had a comprehensive skills matrix, showing which staff could operate multiple machines and hold flexibility
  • Working smarter: They had previously invested in automation in some of their equipment including press machinery and wrapping, which meant they had the ability to ramp up production.
  • Government intervention: The UK Government suspended certain regulations to accelerate production of PPE and other vital supplies for the NHS, as well as temporarily relaxing Driver’s Hours and Working Time rules to ensure prompt deliveries.
  • Passion: Saving lives was the driving force behind Tim’s decision to manufacture the visors; a sentiment shared by Ramfoam’s dedicated staff, despite the difficult circumstances. “Every visor we make is a chance to save someone’s life, and that’s very motivating for our workforce,” he explains.

A flexible way forward

Establishing this new area of the business hasn’t been plain sailing for Ramfoam. Enforcing safe social distancing and staggered shifts whilst maintaining productivity in their factory has presented a number of challenges.

However, the firm have employed in excess of 150 temporary staff members and established a separate 100,000 sq ft facility to ramp up production of the visors quickly, while continuing to deliver for their existing customers from their main facility.

One of the firm’s biggest challenges was the lack of automation for the picking and packing of the visors. WMG’s dedicated SME Group are supporting Ramfoam to automate and increase productivity in the packing process, as well as linking them up to other UK manufacturers and press machinery.

Flexible manufacturing for innovation is something Archie MacPherson, CEO of WMG Centre High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, is passionate about.

“We need to have innovation as an integral part of the agenda at boardroom level,” says Archie. “It’s easy to de-prioritise innovation at the moment, because everyone is focusing on survival. But as Ramfoam have demonstrated, investing in innovation at a time like this can mean the difference between surviving or sinking.”

Indeed, Tim is keen to emphasise that this approach to innovation and flexible manufacturing is something he hopes to see continued at Ramfoam. They have introduced scenario plans to mitigate risk, and dual sourcing of products to ensure a flexible British supply base.

“We’ve learned a lot in a short space of time, but these are lessons that we will apply in the future,” Tim reflects. “We continue to work with WMG to look at our bottlenecks and identify where we can use robotics to drive costs down and speed things up. Dr Paul Milne and his team have provided excellent support.”

Pivoting their business at such a crucial time and overcoming these challenges will allow Ramfoam to be more flexible and resilient in the future.

After all, as Tim puts it, paraphrasing Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

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