Chewing over the Cognitive Factory

Posted on 24 Jul 2017 by Fred Tongue

The Manufacturer and IBM recently brought together some of the top minds and leading manufacturers in the country to discuss the state of British manufacturing at an invite-only dinner in Birmingham.

Cognitive Factory Automation Robot Robotics Digital Smart Factory Smart Factories
Outlays on automation machinery, connected systems, cloud computing and sensors can all add up extremely quickly to those undergoing a digital transformation.

With some of the country’s most cutting-edge manufacturers and fast-moving SMEs, dinner guests chewed over the concept of Industry 4.0 and the cognitive factory.

Industry 4.0: Data lakes or information puddles

One of the biggest discussion points from the evening was, “How do we make Industry 4.0 profitable?” Outlays on automation machinery, connected systems, cloud computing and sensors can all add up extremely quickly to those undergoing a digital transformation and it isn’t always immediately apparent what to do with all of the new capabilities.

Big data is one of the areas that manufacturers have been encouraged to explore, but the plethora of data that can be collected often creates what is known as a ‘data lake’. Data flows in to a growing pool of information without being used.

Guests discussed differing views on data collection, ‘edge’ processing and the validity of data retention. There was agreement that getting some kind of insight (and therefore value) out of data is a key element to evolving manufacturing efficiency. A discussion on whether lakes of unused data were a waste of resource or a future enabler elicited varied views.

The consensus was that data needs to be collected and stored in smaller, more manageable sections so that real value can be pulled from it. A phrase used was ‘information puddles’, demonstrating an acceptance that certain information will likely be siloed in an organisation with limited value in a business case to join all information together. These puddles can then be sifted through to find value and steer businesses towards new business models and service offerings from the insight.

How do you monetise big ideas?

Large companies and organisations such as the Catapults, are constantly pushing the envelope of what is possible in manufacturing, spending millions developing new ways to improve processes and overhaul businesses.

The bleeding-edge technology and ideas behind them are astounding, the issue is successfully commercialising those innovations. Additive manufacturing was cited as being one of the areas of incredible growth that industry hasn’t yet been able to fully exploit.

MAPP aims to address the challenges and opportunities surrounding advanced powder processes through an ambitious interdisciplinary research programme.
Additive manufacturing was cited as being one of the areas of incredible growth that industry hasn’t yet been able to fully exploit.

The next big step for industry is to take the cutting-edge technologies and give them a viable use in the modern manufacturing setting, considering adoption challenges outside of the pure technology including business operating models, change management and commercial implications.

Give them the dumb jobs

One of the major talking points of the evening was around automation and the effect it is having on manufacturing. A wide range of companies attended the dinner from a variety of sectors that gave a broad reaching insight in to the industry and some pertinent comments regarding automation.

Many revolved around augmenting human effort in order to free up engineers to do the “important, higher value” jobs. If it is a boring job, a low value job or a job that makes life difficult for operators, then it should be automated was the consensus. This goes to prove the point made in The Manufacturer’s Annual Manufacturing Report 2017, that less than a third of recent automation projects were aimed at reducing staff costs.

Freeing up the workforce to do jobs that further the business was a key theme to come from discussions about automation. If employing a robot alleviates the pressures placed on engineers and free them up to address real business concerns this is more likely to help UK improve overall productivity.

Industrial Evolution or Revolution?

Despite many firms adopting strategies around Industry 4.0, many organisations and individuals are sceptical about the language surrounding the term. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is set as the backdrop to the recent innovation, but there was a split in those attending whether or not that was the case.

There seems to be two very distinct pools of thought emerging when it comes to Industry 4.0; one school believes that the technology and increased capabilities are truly revolutionary and that we have never seen anything like this before. The other is that Industry 4.0 is simply a continuation of the innovation that has become synonymous with the manufacturing sector over the past 150 years.

It was a discussion point that proved very divisive, with some diners pointing to how the adoption of computers in manufacturing was seamless and wasn’t hailed with the same sort of fanfare as Industry 4.0. Others argued that much like steam, electrification and the internet, manufacturing is undergoing a seismic shift that marks a new era of productivity. The idea that a banner such as “I4.0” creates a useful flag for manufacturing companies to address innovation was thought to help and create general awareness across the wider industrial community.

If you’re interested in the themes raised in this dinner then please also watch the accompanying webinar hosted by IBM and The Manufacturer, click here.