Article originally published by Scottish Enterprise

Like many businesses in Scotland, engineering firm Mage Control Systems faced numerous challenges when the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis hit. By staying alert to new opportunities and using their technological expertise to solve emerging problems, the company found a new focus through the crisis.

Managing Director Matthew Love explains how a collaborative approach to product development, commitment to well-being and a willingness to adapt helped the business survive.

Facing Market Challenges

Mage Control Systems (Mage) has been operating in East Kilbride since its creation in late 2016. We supply innovative solutions for a wide range of domestic and international market sectors, including aerospace, oil and gas, medical, renewables, industrial, subsea and energy. Like many businesses, we’ve been affected by Covid-19 and have had to adapt our business model.

As the pandemic impacted multiple markets, we experienced a number of knock-on effects due to the issues faced by our partners and customers. These included having to stop contract work and being challenged by shortages of materials, essential components and services from suppliers.

Fortunately, despite these challenges, we were able to identify new areas for product development, redirecting our efforts to meet emergent opportunities as they appeared.

Identifying problems and developing innovative solutions

Many start-up businesses are founded around a single product. This can become a serious problem if the market stops demanding or prioritising that product or

service. Mage was founded with a vision of creating and training world-class engineers to achieve ground-breaking technological innovation. This focus and drive gave us the ability to adapt and change direction quickly as the world’s market conditions evolved.

As it became clear that our main market sectors in aerospace and oil and gas were hugely impacted by the pandemic, we quickly turned Mage’s focus to new horizons. By identifying potential problems emerging from the unfolding crisis, we were able to respond by working on new innovations to help in the fight against Covid-19.

With this in mind, the medical industry quickly caught our attention. With our prior experience in developing products for this industry both at home and abroad, we already understood how the market worked, what problems could arise and what solutions were urgently needed.

Once we identified the growing pressure on the medical industry, we began discussions with new partners, including an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), to develop a groundbreaking med-tech sanitisation product. This was designed for use initially in hospitals, with the potential to be used in other markets in the future.

The idea for a rapid, perpetual hand sanitisation device came from recognising a clear, emergent need which was revealed by issues with current sanitisation methods. As increasing shortages of suitable PPE and hand sanitising gels began to grip the world’s healthcare systems, a new idea was essential. A new product was the solution.

This solution is a wall-mounted multi-technology hand sanitiser that provides a measured dose of low-level active gases maintained at a tightly controlled level. This alone is not wholly innovative or new. The real USP of the device is its ability to log and track its users through the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, so that it can only be used by staff who are trained in the proper method of sterilisation.

Our vision was to create a chemical-free hand sanitiser that uses a blend of proven sterilisation techniques in an innovative and new way. For non-clinical settings, a Human Machine Interface (HMI) can instruct users on correct usage without the need for a near-field communication (NFC) tag.

A product with wide-ranging benefits

Hospitals and other healthcare settings were the obvious first planned market entry for this device. There is clearly a huge opportunity in this market for our specialist technology to be used to help combat Covid-19 and other pathogens.

Next, we can market the device to other workplaces, including offices, warehouses, hotels, gyms and schools. The device’s potential for domestic and international sales far supersedes that of any other OEM product we’ve worked on before.

We successfully applied to Innovate UK’s Covid-19 Rapid Response Fund, which called for solutions to combat Covid-19. This funding enabled us to get to work on the product with our OEM partner. The collaboration has brought new opportunities for both companies, as well as facilitating the delivery of an essential innovation to the industries that are most in need of it.  “Looking back, we were able to create a positive outcome from a negative situation by rapidly responding not only to our own business needs but to the emergent demands of other industries and society as a whole. This clearly illustrates how our passion for boundary-pushing technological design has no boundaries itself and can be applied almost anywhere when required.”

Adapting the workspace to ensure business continuity and staff safety

Mage has always striven to be a modern and progressive company. Even prior to Covid-19 we had introduced remote working practices, so key staff were already used to working from home. When the pandemic struck, we brought in best practices to make sure that our staff had the equipment and resources to do this well, meaning business could continue as usual.

We also completed early Covid-19 related risk assessments for all staff prior to the first national lockdown to ensure that those who had health issues or caring responsibilities for vulnerable people were able to work remotely from the outset. With arrangements optimised to deal with the changing situation around us, Mage had a head start even before the national lockdown was enforced in terms of capacity to manage the new project.

However, change and transition did not happen overnight – time, effort and clear leadership were required for success. This was the first time the team had begun new projects in different working environments: some of us were working under Covid-19 restrictions at the factory, while others did so from home. Effective communication and direction were needed now more than ever in order to achieve the goals we had set.

We increased the involvement of junior staff in reviews and meetings throughout the project to keep engagement and motivation high. Staff were also encouraged to meet more regularly online, since they were rarely working in the same location. We believe the focus and encouragement provided by more frequent and social communication was essential to the success of the new projects and working arrangements.

One challenge that presented was the fact that key staff need to be in the workplace to access specialist lab equipment. Lone working was not an option due to health and safety requirements relating to high voltage work and testing. We were able to overcome this by developing a schedule for attendance, maintaining strict hygiene and optimising the space for social distancing.

The principle of being aware of and prepared for possible eventualities is how we’ve approached leadership throughout the pandemic. This ethos has been a huge factor in our ability to adapt and keep the business afloat.

The well-being of our staff and their families was at the heart of our arrangements and it continues to be so. A recent staff survey highlighted a very positive response to the company’s approach to management and leadership throughout the pandemic and gave us valuable feedback on how to develop this further.

What we learned through adapting to the COVID-19 crisis

Importantly, we reviewed our practices to make remote working more effective and to work harder to promote staff well-being and mental health awareness.

We’ve also realised that spotting an opportunity in the commercialisation and manufacture of OEM units had a huge impact, in that we now have a new line of focus and great ambitions for the business’s future.

For businesses going through similar circumstances, we’d suggest that identifying why, as a company, you’re doing what you do is the fundamental question to pose. For us, it’s about technological innovation, unique engineering and the development of young people in challenging roles.

Placing all your efforts and focus on specific products alone may work for you…or it may not. Covid-19 has shown us how technology may need to shift lanes and arrive at different outcomes. Vaccine development is a good example of this.

To be competitive in global markets, there must be robustness of thought and process which makes your organisation’s offerings unique and essentially agile. Agility of process – or response to external change and demands – is crucial. In itself, this isn’t a new idea, but the speed at which we need to it happen might well be.

So be clever, analyse trends and respond to change – and do it quickly but carefully. Most importantly, do what you’re doing with the right people – people who share your passion and with whom you’ve shared your knowledge and experience. It’s all about doing the right thing and doing it right.