Digital manufacturing: from barriers to enablers

The opportunities from digital manufacturing technologies are limitless - image courtesy of The Manufacturing Technology Centre.
The opportunities from digital manufacturing technologies are limitless - image courtesy of The Manufacturing Technology Centre.

Manufacturers say they want to use the technologies of Industry 4.0 (4IR) to improve their businesses. But the barriers to investment seem to be high and many are not moving quickly enough as markets change.

In a new monthly column, Steven Barr of The Manufacturer’s consultancy team Hennik Edge reviews the latest insights and suggests industry needs a collaborative approach to make digital manufacturing work.

The Annual Manufacturing Report 2017, published by Hennik Research in February, presented a fascinating view of attitudes and ambitions in our industry.

The Manufacturer’s Annual Manufacturing Report 2017Spreads
Download your copy of the Annual Manufacturing Report 2017 here.

Most businesses are aware of the potential benefits of digital manufacturing technologies, and most are planning to “make a move to 4IR”. But barriers to investment are daunting and the scope of technologies being considered is relatively narrow. What can be done to help manufacturers take advantage of the opportunities of 4IR and not be left behind?

The concerns of decision-makers cover all elements of manufacturing, from design to manufacture, to sales and customer use. That means they affect design, supply chain, factory operations and customer service.

High on the list of issues are cash flow and uncertain return on investment. Not far behind are concerns about lack of specialist expertise within the company, including “not knowing what they don’t know”, for example, cyber security issues. Still more worry about the difficulty of implementing 4IR within the business and its impact on people. The pain of manufacturers is evident.

Strategic investment

Also clear is the danger manufacturers face by not investing in 4IR strategically. Better customer engagement and service are seen as important goals. Supply chain agility is also recognised as a major factor.

Digitla Manufacturing PQ - March 2017Customer and supplier expectations have been changing quickly as digital technologies have become commonplace. In the UK, we have been slow to respond, but there are great examples of manufacturers who have transformed the way they work through digital technologies.

We all know about the showcase facilities and methods of large companies like Siemens, but I also meet many medium and small companies leading the way in digital manufacturing. All ‘get’ the essentials of data-enabled business, for example supply chain management.

The best use connected data and technologies for competitive advantage in all areas, as in these examples:

Briggs Automotive’s customer engagement is exceptional. Web-based interaction from design to production results in highly personalised design of the BAC Mono sports car, and loyal customers.

Automata aims to ‘democratise’ and simplify the use of robotics in manufacturing with easy-to-use software. Diagnostics and maintenance are delivered remotely through a web connection between Automata and ‘Eva’ (a robotic arm) on the customer’s site, saving time and cost.

What comes through these stories and many others is the transformative power of 4IR to drive value from top to bottom. These companies don’t see barriers, just enablers. So the big question is not, “what is the return on investment?”, but “how can we use 4IR technologies to enable our business to succeed?”

Steven Barr chairing The Manufacturer’s Leaders Conference 2016 in Birmingham.
Steven Barr chairing The Manufacturer’s Leaders Conference 2016 in Birmingham.

The answer lies not only in affordable access to expertise in 4IR technology, finance, operations and human resources, but also in building collaboration between the experts who can help a manufacturer to make all these things add up.

So, we must help UK manufacturers to engage efficiently and effectively with customers and external organisations, and that means overcoming one of the greatest barriers of all – trust.

Focused support

Government and institutional backing for digital manufacturing is gaining strength through the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult Centres, the Digital Catapult and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN). The current Industrial Strategy consultation and the Industrial Digitalisation Review should focus attention on the needs of medium and small manufacturers as well as the larger ones.

And of course, our own The Manufacturer conferences and seminars help to generate high quality insight and debate, culminating this year in The Manufacturer’s Leaders Conference in Liverpool in November.

The Manufacturer Collaboratory

I’ll talk more in my next column about the secrets of successful collaboration on 4IR transformation. We’ll be launching The Manufacturer Collaboratory, a new and free service matching manufacturers with the right supporters, at the right time and in the right place. We are very excited by the experience of developing and testing it online, and look forward to helping you break through the barriers that hold your business back.