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Coronavirus diaries: The engineering sector

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In the midst of a crisis, we take the positives where we can. One heart-warming aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to see individuals and organisations coming forward and discovering how they can play a part in the response.

For some companies, this has meant committing to a complete pivot in production. Which can present quite the project management challenge.

Pivoting down from the stars

Skyrora is an Edinburgh-based start-up which designs and builds, and will soon start launching, rockets to carry satellites into low-Earth orbit. As the UK went into lockdown, with its work temporarily halted by the coronavirus, it switched its entire output to more down-to-earth products: hand sanitiser, and face visors for the NHS.

“We realised we had a lot of technology and staff expertise we could leverage to help with the crisis,” says Dr Jack James Marlow, who manages Skyrora’s engineering in the UK. “Hydrogen peroxide is a key ingredient in hand sanitiser. We use it as an oxidiser in our rocket engines, and have a whole chemical suite set up for it. And the 3D printers we use to reduce the mass in our launch vehicles could be used to produce face masks.”

Suddenly the Skyrora team was dealing with new supply chains, partners and distribution channels – for something it wasn’t producing at all before – and with everything moving at rocket speed.

But ask him about the project management challenge, and Marlow’s feet remain firmly on the ground.

“The space market in the UK is very new, so our team took a flexible approach to project management, even before this crisis,” he says. “We’re young, we research quickly, and we follow an agile approach to day-to-day tasks. We push very fast on our launch vehicle development so we can be first to market. And when we swapped our production, we kept that same very nimble project management structure.”

Rising to the Ventilator Challenge

For other companies the shift has meant major upheaval. Hampshire-based Surface Technology International (STI) makes electronics for commercial applications. It recently pivoted to ventilators, producing and testing those made by the Ventilator Challenge consortium, which included the likes of McLaren and Rolls-Royce.

STI already had the necessary accreditations to produce medical equipment, but it had never made ventilators. The switch required a Herculean project management effort. Each ventilator has close to 600 components, and STI was ramping up manufacturing very quickly to produce, at peak, 3,000 ventilators a week. That’s close to nine million components. The team had to decommission production cells and ship large equipment, including massive nitrogen cylinders, to several Hampshire sites, as well as up the M60 to its base in Manchester, to get the floorspace needed for the influx of new materials.

All while keeping their workers safe.

“The weight of a business unit is 24kg, which is a two-man lift,” says Jon Ashford, project engineering manager at STI. “But the unit is only 50cm wide, so you can't get two people close enough while social distancing. We had to design a system where we slid units off benches directly on to trollies.”

But while the effort was huge, the team was painfully aware of the value of the work. And not just from the news. A member of the STI team was struck by the coronavirus and has spent weeks in intensive care, on a ventilator.

“You walk out on to production and everyone knows how important it is,” says Jon. “Even when you’re asking people to do very simple, mundane things, the commitment from the team has been second to none.”

Yet such commitment can create challenges. When people understand the urgency of their work, typical project management hurdles – such as blockages in the supply chain – can easily boil up into frustration.

“Our supply chain wasn't ready for the challenge, so a number of new suppliers have been brought on board, and with that comes requirements around quality assurance and material dependability,” says Ashford. “It's taken a couple of weeks for that to start to flow. Now there are a number of small issues cropping up that are causing production to stop and material to be put into quarantine. It's about trying to find the right ways to discuss it with the production team so they don't automatically take a hit and think: ‘Oh, we're just starting and stopping again’.”

Challenges overcome

The agile Skyrora has suffered similar blocks – from a lack of clarity around specific standards, to the challenge of injecting their new products into the NHS supply chain. Then there’s the reality of sourcing and storing ethanol for hand sanitiser, of which Skyrora is aiming to produce up to 1,500 litres a day. “The price of ethanol has gone up 500 per cent, because everyone's buying it,” says Marlow. “Meanwhile we need approval from HMRC to store it. There’s no direct line to say you can help. There’s one online form you fill out, and then you wait. Every day we wait for someone at HMRC to tick that box for us, we're losing out on a day in manufacturing.”

Back at STI, Ashford explains how managing team morale is a key part of project managing such a pivot. It’s about setting very obvious milestones that everyone can celebrate hitting. It’s about holding daily briefings to keep people informed of progress. And it’s about staying visible on the shop floor.

“You have to remain positive, and fluid in what you're doing,” says Ashford. “There are a lot of changes taking place, so keep the end game in mind. You've just got to keep going, be selfless and get it done. At the end of each day you can then drive home knowing you've made a difference.”


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