Reflections on 2020 and thoughts about 2021

Most of us in manufacturing and laser cutting will remember 2008 as being a torrid time, I can recall a number of our customers shutting their doors for good and those that remained reduced their requirements dramatically or worked a four day week. Most of us didn’t think we’d face another year like it, how wrong we were!

Then, like now, was a nerve-racking time to be in business with the future so uncertain. Looking back you could argue that the period of the financial crash was actually worse as there wasn’t the government support in place to help normally viable businesses survive. It’s hard to comprehend the vast amounts of money that have been spent by governments around the world in this current crisis.

For me personally, 2020 was the year that I gained more knowledge about the actual technicalities of laser cutting than I had learnt in the years since GF Laser’s inception in 2006. By spending more time on the shop floor, I discovered a huge amount about how the laser’s worked, their inherent issues and how to problem solve in order to overcome those and keep things running smoothly. Because a large percentage of our employees come from overseas and with the double whammy of Brexit and Covid, several staff no longer felt at home in the UK. The thought of not being able to get home to see their loved ones proved too much and with parts of UK manufacturing already in a lull, many staff decided to pursue opportunities back in their native countries. We also had staff shortages due to self-isolation, although I think this was more frustrating for the staff than it was for me.  So, with new work boots and trousers at the ready I was equipped to muck in and lend a hand. I was probably of a more hindrance than a help for the first few days but slowly I learned what needed to be done. Therefore, for any new starters at GF Laser, or any other laser cutting companies for that matter, I offer the following few pieces of advice:

  1. Make sure the tape shot, designed to centre the laser beam, is perfect. Many operators overlook this and therefore often struggle to get the perfect cut quality. Now I understand why our Workshop Manager was always drilling into the workforce about getting the machine set up right!
  2. Follow the systems for ISO 9001:2015 that are in place as they really do work even though sometimes they seem to be a bit of an overkill when you just want to get cutting! Double checking the material before cutting, rather than after, was a lesson hard learnt.
  3. Our state of the art Fiber Laser heads really benefit from an old fashioned clean. I soon realised the advantages of making sure that the head was cleaned regularly and also that changing the glass, even when it looked ok, stopped any dirt getting further up to the focusing mirrors.
  4. Every laser has its own little idiosyncrasies, something that works well on one laser will not work on another laser even though it’s a seemingly identical machine.
  5. Finally, the fundamental law of laser cutting is that a machine will go down just when you have all the lasers running at full capacity and you will have about two seconds of euphoria about running at full capacity before that happens! Make the most of those two seconds before the General Manager comes out for an update on Production

The Year Ahead

So, on to 2021 and what might happen. Right now, we are in the eye of the storm as far as the pandemic is concerned but 2021 has started quite brightly for manufacturing in general and GF Laser specifically. Although this may seem surprising, I do think that the general economy is starting to shrug off the effects of COVID. Whilst I appreciate this is not true for parts of the service sector, manufacturing is learning to live with the virus and it’s easier to operate in a large factory where social distancing is possible.

Brexit is also having a positive impact on manufacturing and laser cutting with customers now looking at the UK as the most cost-effective option for getting metal parts. So-called low-cost economies have not actually been that low cost for a while due to all the freight and travel charges and with adding Brexit into the mix, suddenly sourcing locally seems to make a lot of sense.

UK Needs Driving The Marketplace

For example, we laser cut more 20mm thick mild steel material in 2020 than we had done in the previous 14 years. This was and is for a growing UK fitness equipment industry and for Free Weights. The new fiber laser cutters mean that the cut quality is good and smaller holes can be reliably laser cut through thick material. Many buyers have kept faith with their UK suppliers even though their overseas supply chains have opened back up. This is not just because of the direct costs associated with overseas sourcing, it is also because buyers have benefited from dealing with local companies where quick turnaround is the norm rather than the exception.

Despite the positive signs, I don’t think for a moment that anyone in the UK running a business would say we are out of the woods yet. Even those companies that have done well in lockdown must have one eye on the summer thinking that they may have to look to other revenue streams as things get back to normal. It’s also worth mentioning that the automotive sector was already in decline in the UK with the combined diesel scandal and Brexit uncertainty leading to a significant reduction in vehicle sales. We saw several established manufacturing businesses fail at the back end of 2019 when Covid was still China’s problem.

Quiet Confidence For The Future?

After the crisis in 2008, it wasn’t too long before things started to pick up and, in late 2009, confidence grew as pent-up demand meant that suddenly, we felt busy again. Although, right now, we are not quite there, I think we’re getting pretty close and confidence will increase as the immunisation programme grows. Before we know it we’ll be eyeing up the next new piece of machinery and hiring new staff once again.

At GF Laser we have a lot to be thankful for and although it’s been tough, we are still here and open for business and there’s a lot to be said for that!