It is no surprise that digital technologies have been the one clear winner from this wretched six months that we have all lived through. Steady advance has turned into a rapid transformation. Covid-19 has catalysed companies, families and individuals to invest in new equipment and upgraded WiFi to make working from home and using video conferencing simpler and better. Retail has moved from multichannel to omnichannel, ‘blended’ is no longer an esoteric form of learning but now a mainstream term in how we run many work and educational functions.

Getting a hide or skin through a tannery and converted into a saleable piece of leather is a physical matter, so it is easy to say that tanneries are immune from these shifts to working from home and some of the other computer linked novelties of Industry 4.0. Even many of your associated staff need to be around to examine the leather and watch despatches and arrivals. But adopting the attitude that ‘the digital world does not affect us’ would be a big mistake, even if you are in one of the very traditional tanneries emphasising the history and the craft of leather.

Digital changes have now permeated all of society, our consumers, our entire industrial network and our tannery lives. Even our older analogue citizens have been finding TV and radio catch-up, digital newspapers and links to grandchildren via Facetime. In many regions of the world it is this older group who are reluctant to return to the High Street to spend and have learned the convenience of online purchasing, and for now at least, are leaving the physical retail therapy to younger generations, a point we also need to ponder.

Equally, it would be wrong to think that the move to the internet will be total, and we would best consider it as a key element in augmenting the physical. Difficult projects, innovation and team meetings are best held in person, but as with retail, the balance of what will be done remotely has clearly changed exactly. Sales staff, buyers and others can now more easily involve themselves in company meetings through the remote tools we have now become familiar with. Equally, we also want our trade customers to visit the tannery regularly but will have to get used to these visits being less frequent. We will need to find new ways to demonstrate our skills, commitment to quality and personnel capabilities to our customers to these missing visitors.

It is important to plan additional layers of cyber security
Immediately, this evidences the certain requirement for a very strong IT department. New sets of equipment will be required for effective home and mobile working and new capabilities will be required for the complexity of tasks involved. It is clear that good quality facilities can make a huge difference in productivity. Yet, even more important is to plan additional layers of Cyber Security. We might view the leather industry as a small, unattractive segment to target, but in only the last two years I know of two leather businesses that were devastated, one by a complex denial of service and the other by online theft. We are not immune.

Tanneries are increasingly becoming more complex and quite a few now manufacture finished products. For some, this is a mainstream business, and for others, it is useful to deal with selections for which the sales channel is less reliable. Those with a certain level of direct retail activity, for leather goods or even leather itself, with an online element, found it useful through the pandemic to keep some cash flow moving and to maintain a dialogue with consumers. Some tanners have established this via working with their own customers, often the small start-up designers who appreciate any airtime as long as it is sympathetic to their work. These links will be increasingly important and digital tools will form an essential part.

We will also see a new push in productivity, which will inevitably reach into the tannery. Certainly, with new machines and handling devices, but also more integrated systems. We are already seeing that the new emphasis on omnichannel retail is leading to the utilisation of a single database to drive omni-commerce retail solutions with full integration. The days of multiple databases being patched together are disappearing, and so it will have to be in the tannery.

The essence of leathermaking craft will remain, and in many respects needs to be reintroduced and promoted in innovative ways, but life in the tannery will have to keep progressing. Over time, our industry has moved from crude bucket chemistry to engineered product. We dare not stop now.

Mike Redwood
August 26, 2020

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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