Despite slowdowns, pandemic accelerates shifts in hardware manufacturing

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t hit every factory in China at once.

The initial impact to China’s electronics industry arrived around the time the nation was celebrating its new year. Two weeks after announcing 59 known cases of a new form of coronavirus, the national government put Wuhan — a city of 11 million — under strict lockdown.

As with most of the rest of the word, the manufacturing sector was caught somewhat flat-footed. according to Anker founder and CEO Steven Yang .

“Nobody had a great reaction,” said Yang, whose electronics company is based in Shenzhen. “I think this all caught us by surprise. In our China office, everybody was prepared to go on vacation for the Chinese New Year. I think the first reaction was that vacation was prolonged the first week and then another several days.

People were just off work. There wasn’t a determined date for when they could come back to work. That period was the most concerning because we didn’t have an outlook. They had to find certainties. People had to work from home and contact supplies and so forth. That first three to four weeks was the most chaotic.”

Numbers from early 2020 certainly reflect the accompanying slowdown in the manufacturing sector. In February, the Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) — a metric used to gauge the health of manufacturing and service sectors — hit a record low.

These bottlenecks resulted in product shortages — a fact that was rendered relatively moot in some sectors as demand for nonessentials dropped, many small businesses shuttered and COVID-19-related layoffs began. The U.S. lost 20.5 million jobs in April alone, hitting a record high 14.7% unemployment. (When you suddenly find yourself indefinitely unemployed, a smartphone upgrade seems much less pressing.) Such events only served to compound existing mobile trends and has delayed the adoption of 5G and other technologies.

It seems likely, too, that COVID-19 will accelerate other trends within manufacturing — notably, the shift toward diversifying manufacturing sites. China continues to be the dominant global force in electronics manufacturing, but the price of labor and political uncertainty has led many companies to begin looking beyond the world’s largest workforce.