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An interview with Michael Jones, Head of Projects at Vacuum Furnace Engineering (VFE)

“When the pandemic first hit, everything changed. Key at the time was how we reacted to that change. Like many businesses, we had to start operating differently. Across the business, people were quickly mobilised with the tools and processes they needed to keep operations running smoothly. As a result, we were able to help our customers do the same.”

As Head of Projects, Michael is responsible for ensuring that every project executed by VFE is delivered on time, to specification and within budget. He is also accountable for all the project managers and a team of field engineers. As Michael explains, these duties put him on the front line when the business came to adapting in response to the growing pandemic. 

“Being of an engineering background, sometimes there's nothing better than standing directly in front of a problem with a group of people around it”, Michael explains. “So to find ourselves in a position where that wasn't possible made things more challenging. But we had to come to terms with it so, like any problem, we set out to solve it.”

Related read: Remote Monitoring: A Practical Solution to Today’s Manufacturing  Challenges

How did VFE adapt the way it delivered its projects in order to help its customers through this challenging period and how were its customers impacted? Read on to find out.

Reacting quickly to minimise disruption

One of the biggest changes came immediately in the form of remote working. We explored how VFE embraced remote working at an organisational level in this interview with Louise Hall, Head of Field Service. For Michael, whose team is typically more hands-on, the solution was not so simple.

“When you’re in the facility, you know what components are there. You know what has turned up in the delivery, in what sizes and what colours, for example. When shifting to remote operations, you don’t immediately have that level of visibility. At the beginning of the national lockdown, we lost some of the visual aspects of what it was we were doing before.”

Since then, Michael’s project managers and engineers have fully adapted to working remotely. 

“As a team, we’ve got much better at communicating remotely. We still miss being able to jump into the boardroom, take out the drawings and work a problem out, but it was just a case of learning how to do that type of thing differently. Now we know how to simulate those meetings virtually, without losing any of the problem-solving capabilities we had before.”

Making the shift to remote Factory Acceptance Tests

“Leading on from the hands-on aspect of what we do, one of the biggest changes to the way we work has been in how we carry out Factory Acceptance Tests”, Michael explains.

Pre-COVID-19, a customer would come to VFE and over the course of a week, we would run some of their products and profiles for heat treatment cycles in the machine in question. This is a vital step on the way to getting sign-off for a project, prior to installing it on-site.

“It's quite a big part of our acceptance process, which we have obviously had to strip away, so we had to start doing things differently. How we've actually done that is through video conferencing and screen sharing to enable us to deliver remote Factory Acceptance Tests and continue to provide this essential service to our customer when they need us most.”

As Michael explains, this involves setting up numerous webcams around the machine, with another screen set on the human-machine interface (HMI) display, so the details can be easily shared with the customer. The customer is then brought up on another screen, giving them the visibility and the level of detail they need to follow every step of the process.

“Of course, the test is easier to carry out in person, but that just isn’t an option anymore for many of our customers. This way, they're one step away from actually being there. They can see the machine. They can see us moving around it. They can see what's happening with the machine. The project manager will also use their business phone’s video capabilities, providing the customer with a mobile point of view that can be easily moved, for example, if they wanted to inspect a component or a particular aspect of the furnace.”

Find out how remote monitoring offers a practical solution to today’s manufacturing challenges.

Investing in portable, on-site facilities 

One of the first remote Factory Acceptance Tests that VFE carried out was a project with a heat treatment research facility. A success, the test naturally led to an installation project, highlighting another challenge that Michael’s team had to overcome: visiting and carrying out work at customer sites compliantly in the midst of a global pandemic.  

“The customer really wanted to move forwards with the project but they rightly had a lot of restrictions on-site. They were only allowed so many contractors on-site per day, for example, so we had to fall in line with the customer's schedule.”

There were further restrictions around the use of the customer’s facilities such as toilets, office space and the canteen. This obviously presented several challenges for the engineering team required to operate on-site.

“To remain compliant with the customer’s requirements and to help keep our own staff safe and well, we arranged for a mobile Portakabin office and washing facilities to be set up. With these in place, our engineers could operate on-site in a self-contained way, even video conferencing with the customer from the mobile office, when the guidelines called for it.” 

As a result, VFE is able to continue to carry out all manner of on-site projects and technical installations, to drive customer efficiency while taking every step to ensure the health of its engineers and its customers, in line with the latest government guidelines

Related read: VFE’s CEO David Byrne on the Importance of Service Excellence in Manufacturing.

Frequently testing our on-site teams for COVID-19

A similar scenario, in Singapore this time, highlights the lengths VFE is going to in order to follow government guidelines, reduce risks and operate responsibly in all instances.

“The customer had put off four projects but it had got to the point where they really needed us to carry out this work for them, so we came to an agreement and our engineers went over’, Michael explains. “On arrival, our engineers had to isolate for two weeks, after which they were able to complete the projects, one after the other. It was an efficient way to deliver the projects, which were ultimately very successful. Most importantly, the customer was happy and we got our team home safe and sound.”

Throughout the pandemic, VFE’s engineers have been regularly tested for COVID-19 to meet the requirements, giving all parties involved in a project the peace of mind that the risk of transmission between our contractors and our customers is as low as possible. 

“The guidelines are changing all the time and they’re different everywhere, so that's something that we've had to track quite closely”, Michael reveals. “This has been a top priority for us, alongside our legal representation and our booking agent. We've had to work closely with them to see what restrictions apply to the places we're visiting. So that's another measure that we've had to take. Constant advice and consistently getting our people tested.”

“On behalf of my team, I just wanted to express our gratitude to you for helping us achieve this wonderful result. It was a long, dark road but it was really heartwarming to see the amount of effort being put in by VFE to get this right for us! The team was 100% responsive to all text communications. Everything was seamless and we were also happy to provide all the support they needed. It was one of a hell of an experience and I’m glad it went well in the end.” Manufacturing Services Leader 

Delivering efficiency through new project offerings

Across the industry, manufacturers are reviewing their costs in response to the economic impacts of the pandemic. 

“Maybe revenues aren't as high as they used to be”, Michael explains, “or they are having to make difficult decisions regarding their staffing levels. We’ve reviewed many of our project offers with a mind to building efficiencies that help our customers through these challenging times.”

To create more value for both VFE and our customers, Michael and his team have helped to roll out several new project offerings throughout 2020.

“From VFE’s smart Energy-Saving and Remote Monitoring Systems to product partnerships such as RoMan Transformers, these new projects all focus around increasing our customers’ efficiency at a time when that is really important to people.”

Read about VFE’s secret to achieving perfect production.

Adapting our projects to support our customers

In an industry governed by process and regulations, adaptability doesn’t always come easily. VFE has made it our focus to do everything we can over the course of the pandemic so far to support our customers and help keep their operations running. 

“Making the shift to remote Factory Acceptance Tests and supplying on-site facilities to keep our engineers isolated from the customers' operations have meant we’ve been able to help our customers progress with their projects uninterrupted. As some manufacturers will have discovered, the alternative was they wait for the pandemic to pass, and I think now, looking at how long this has gone on for, it's a good job that we adapted in the way that we have.”

At all times over the course of the pandemic so far, VFE has followed the current guidelines and restrictions in place, attesting to our willingness to navigate these difficult times.

“It's been problem-solving on a new level for us really”, Michael confesses. “Fortunately, putting our heads together has never really been a problem for us — even when have to do so virtually. Flexibility, adaptability, working around the specific needs of each individual customer. This is what we have always done, it's just that those needs have changed.”

To find out more about the range of heat treatment services we offer, get in touch.

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