How Spanish Manufacturers Are Dealing with COVID-19 Pressures

Spanish manufacturers had to face many challenges during lockdown. In our interview Levi Corbacho, Product Manager at Mettler-Toledo Safeline from Spain talks about how food and pharmaceutical manufacturers overcame unprecedented challenges that COVID-19 presented to them.

What were the greatest challenges that Spanish manufacturers faced during lockdown and how did they overcome these? 

Spain had a very sudden and strict lockdown that brought most industries to a halt. However, two industries had a very different experience – these were food and pharmaceutical as they were two very critical sectors in Spain during the lockdown.  People needed more food supplies than ever while in isolation and more pharmaceuticals were also required during such a hard-hitting pandemic.

Levi Corbacho talks about the challenges Spanish manufacturers had to face during lockdown Levi Corbacho talks about the challenges Spanish manufacturers had to face during lockdown

There was no decrease in production for food and pharmaceutical, but a spike at the national and international level, so production had to continue.  Workers within these industries, if they could work, had to work. The exception of this was food manufacturers who supply food products in bulk e.g. hotels, restaurants, and catering who unfortunately had to stop production due to lack of demand.

While increased demand was a significant challenge, the biggest concern was to ensure everyone was as safe as possible in their working environments which was achieved through implementing new safety measures. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, that had a more gradual lockdown perhaps learned to live with the virus differently – but in Spain, due to the very strict imposed lockdown nationally, it meant that going to work for critical industries was a matter of supporting the infrastructure and supporting the country as a whole, to save and preserve as many lives as possible.

What were the main changes that Spanish manufacturers implemented to cope with the effects of COVID-19? 

As production at food and pharmaceutical plants could not slow down, changes to preserve safety had to be implemented quickly and logically – and, with minimum disruption. For example, employees worked in the same team all the time, and they were assigned the same shifts, so that if anyone contracted the virus, they could all then be isolated as a block and limit the spread. Companies also imposed more gradual shift patterns while maintaining productivity, so not all employees arrived and left at the same time. Manufacturers also increased hygiene measures between shifts and provided as much PPE as it was possible (as it was dependent on availability for critical sectors like healthcare). Factories also closed access to external visitors who were not employees within a specific shift. Once they became available, COIVD-19 tests were also performed on employees, to ensure everyone on the work floor was safe to work. 

How did Spanish manufacturers still ensure that food and pharmaceutical products met production demands?

Manufacturers increased capacity by adding more shifts including over the weekend; they tried to produce as much as they could and as safely as possible. This meant for us that some projects regarding the supply and commissioning of new machinery and equipment had to be delayed or came to a halt, as manufacturers did not have the bandwidth to stop production lines to update equipment. For three months, manufacturers came together to maximise production and safety, so secondary projects sometimes took a hit. But it was only temporary.  

In hindsight, what would Spanish manufacturers have done differently?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing to have – and we did have some experience from the previous financial crisis in 2008, which meant we understand what the consequences of a new potential economic crisis could be. Spain is also a country that places great emphasis on family and the elderly, and the fact that this virus was attacking the most vulnerable, motivated manufacturers and the country as a whole to minimise as much as possible the possibility of a prolonged lockdown.

It is hard to say what other industries have done, but from our perspective, which is similar to that of the manufacturers we work with, is that we accepted the required changes and put our best foot forward. I can truly say companies did their best to adapt, in terms of implementing more remote tools (such as Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc.), if they were not using them already. Even older employees, who might have not had as much exposure to digital tools, embraced remote working software and, as a priority, received training on them. And even for us, who already had access to those tools, the focus was on maximising their use to keep in contact with clients and teams.

Rather than looking back, we would like to look forward, pat ourselves on the back for all the successes - for keeping teams working safely and efficiently. 

What advice would you give to other European food and pharma manufacturers about dealing with the pressures that COVID-19 has brought?

"To adapt yourself to the new scenario is the key; the faster you do it, bigger your success will be." 

 To what extent has your day-to-day work changed in terms of dealing with customers and prospects? What worked and what did not? Why?

At Mettler-Toledo we already had all the tools we needed to continue working – but remotely, in terms of video conferencing, simulators, digital collateral and video demos, which was fantastic. We were very well prepared for a shift to this more digital world. Microsoft Teams became our daily communications hub internally and externally (with clients). The truth is that although we had simulators for machinery, we did not use them as much before, as we preferred face to face interaction with our customers when it was possible – we value the human factor and developing client relationships. 

You are working at the Test Center in Barcelona.  The Test Center provides free product evaluation and assessment services to food and pharmaceutical manufacturers to ensure they are using the right inspection technology for their specific production lines. How has the Barcelona Test Center benefitted Spanish manufacturers?  

We did not close the Test Centre in Barcelona at any point during the pandemic. We firstly ensured everyone’s safety and productivity, but wanted it to remain open, as our “resistance symbol, as a lighthouse”. This is because we wanted manufacturers to feel supported and in communication with us if they needed to get their product samples tested and evaluated for inspection accuracy, performance and contaminant detection sensitivity during such stressful times.

All internal decisions were made as a team – we did not want to impose illogical or impractical measures, so everything was discussed together first. This meant we had employee buy-in for all new safety protocols, and they were always respected.  This also ensured that all our employees felt safe and were keen to come to work in this environment, as they had been part of the decision-making process.

We re-arranged shifts and kept only critical employees on the premises at specific times – but our goal was to provide continuity and normality to the business, which we did. Administrative functions did move to working from home remotely (home office), but they were also critical to have in terms of reporting and administrative functions. We prepared for the worst-case scenarios obviously (having to close due to infection), but that never happened.

We should be very proud of how we maintained operations at the centre, which was one of our main goals, along with keeping our people safe - a big thank you is owed to all teams, nationally and at the European level. 

What measures are you keeping long term and why?

Our time was optimised during lockdown, as we had access to clients and co-workers, but without the long commutes. However, whilst it is true that some companies are remodelling the way they work to increase remote working, for us, we value human interaction and relationship building, and are focused on long-term success. Limiting client face-to-face time was a temporary measure, not something we want forever.

We are not implementing any drastic changes. However, we will keep the use and training of digital tools for business continuity purposes and to improve agility. From a management perspective, the use of digital tools has provided us with increased flexibility, i.e. more time and not being tied to a location. But all these learnings will be implemented gradually, while we continue to work and return to a sense of normality. 

Looking back what would you have done differently (regarding supporting your own staff)? 

Looking back and with perspective, nothing. I think we decided what the best approach would be and thankfully, the "principles" we chose were correct, there were and are:

  • Safety comes first
  • We need team collaboration and collective decision making
  • Ensuring everyone felt safe in their environments and that they wanted to come to work
  • Fast reaction e.g. training in simulators, digital collateral, video conferences etc
  • Aiming to do the best and not waste time thinking of what ifs 

Looking back what would you have done differently (regarding supporting prospects and customers)? 

Again nothing. And this is difficult statement for me because I am very open minded to continuous improvement, but as I said, for once in my life I am more than proud of the team's reaction to the pandemic.

Are there any other lessons that Spanish food and pharmaceutical manufacturers have learnt?

The effects of the 2008 crisis are still very fresh for us. As is well known, Spain was in the top 3 affected countries in the EU – and this has made our resolve stronger. It is also part of the Spanish mindset not to dwell on negative or on hypothetical situations. 

What have you learnt personally about doing business/working with others? 

In terms of management, we are looking into how best to maintain the same levels of productivity once we return to a more normal working environment – for example, some digital tools allow us to make better use of our time. However, human interaction is still necessary, from an economic and personal perspective. As a business, our aim is to protect human interaction and maintain it. We do not want to socially disconnect; in fact, the opposite is true. We will continue to support manufacturers, in the most safe and efficient way as possible.