Getting policy makers to understand the potential of digital manufacturing

Ben Carpenter Merritt is Manufacturing Policy Manager at Policy Connect, which coordinates the work of the All-Party Manufacturing Group (APMG) in the House of Commons. He believes public policy can be made to work more effectively for manufacturers, but only if manufacturers make their voices heard more loudly.

In recent years, the UK has experienced a decline in productivity growth that has seen us lag behind our European peers.

This slowdown caused such concern that in 2016 the government published the UK’s first modern Industrial Strategy, to mitigate the decline and develop solutions.

UK manufacturers are confident about growth prospects in 2018 - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

These solutions revolve around the adoption of modern digital manufacturing technologies such as automation, but the problem is that manufacturers in other European countries are also seizing the opportunity posed by this new industrial revolution so that, with the exception of a few enterprising businesses, in the UK we are, at best, standing still.

Few policy makers actually understand the potential of this new industrial revolution and the impact it will have on the economy and wider society and therefore do not understand how policy can encourage wider adoption of these technologies by UK manufacturing.

It is therefore essential that manufacturers find ways to engage with policy makers to help them understand the opportunities and challenges presented by this period of profound change.

This article first appeared in the October issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe

A 2017 report by PwC stated that AI, robotic and other automation could add up to $15.7tn to global GDP by 2030, but the ability of the UK to capitalise on this is constrained by the productivity gap with its near neighbours.

And it is not hard to understand why. Germany is considerably more productive that the UK, and it also has almost four-times as many industrial robots as we do. Automation is not a silver bullet, but it would certainly help close that gap.


PRODUCTIVITY BY COUNTRY, BY YEAR – GDP PER HOUR WORKED

PRODUCTIVITY BY COUNTRY, BY YEAR - GDP PER HOUR WORKED


Support structure

For those of us who work in policy, the key question is how government can support manufacturers to adopt and invest in new technology to help them increase their output and productivity.

There are four key areas that will ensure government make the most of this opportunity:

  • Smart regulation
  • Empowering the SME base
  • Ensuring the skills system is fit for the future
  • Direct engagement with manufacturers.

Bluntly, the more firms work with government on these issues, the more productive they will be.

CROP - Whitehall Downing Street in London - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

However, care should be taken that policy facilitating new and innovative ways of working that will arise from increased automation is sufficiently flexible and capable of change, in order not to become an unintentional block to innovation.

Government has already taken action by establishing a Future Regulation Working Group to ensure regulation supports innovation, but any future discussions should involve industry, not just policy makers.

Policy makers must also ensure that SMEs are properly supported, as they form the backbone of our industrial base.

This is why it is essential that Made Smarter – the programme designed to help SMEs adopt digital manufacturing – is rolled out across the country as soon as possible, following the initial successes of the Made Smarter Pilot in the North West.

Indeed, there are also countless success stories from there, such as Liverpool City Region’s LCR4.0 initiative, and elsewhere in the North, such as the North East’s Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing programme, where the heartlands of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions are now at the forefront of the Fourth.

The highly successful LCR 4.0 team with chief executive Simon Reid on the right.

The highly successful LCR 4.0 team with chief executive Simon Reid on the right.


Analysing and identifying these successes would allow best practice from across the country to feed into these important programmes and allow other regions across the country to consolidate their regional strengths, something that has been central to the German economic model.

Make your voice heard

There is common misconception among policy makers that automation will cost jobs. Although the World Economic Forum suggested that by 2035 between 10% and 15% of jobs in manufacturing will have high potential for automation, the practical reality is that it is unlikely there will be a net reduction in jobs.

Indeed, automation permits workers to be moved away from repetitive, difficult and/or dangerous tasks and into more rewarding and safer roles.

New technology, from the seed drill to the word processor, has always been heralded as destroying jobs, but this rarely translates to mass unemployment.

CROP - Smart factory and industry 4.0 and connected production robots exchanging data with internet of things (IoT) with cloud computing technology - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Farm labourers moved to the cotton mills and stenographers entered better paid work in the service sector. Manufacturers, likewise, are already been taught IT and programming skills to run the factory floors of the future.

In order to ensure that British workers are able to benefit from these new opportunities, politicians must ensure that the UK skills system is ready and able to upskill the British workforce.

Additionally, as is the case with any change, policy makers must be cognisant of the fact that some workers may be displaced and ensure that there is an adequate level of support to help them access other employment.

Government and policy makers actively want to learn from manufacturers, and there are channels for manufacturers to engage with them to help develop informed policy.

First, you should submit to public inquiries into issues that are relevant to the sector, such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee’s inquiry into regional investment and growth.

Secondly, make sure you utilise any membership organisations or trade bodies as a secondary route to government.

Finally, you should engage your local MP so they are able to understand and champion what you do, and the regulation that you believe will enable you to perform as well as possible.

With the country on the verge of a general election and a final decision on the nature of Brexit, there is no better or more important time to make your voice heard.


About All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs)

An APPG consists of Members of both Houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords) who join together to pursue a particular topic or interest.

All-Party Parliamentary Groups cover a diverse range of subjects and are established for a rich variety of purposes, and provide a valuable opportunity for parliamentarians to engage with individuals and organisations outside Parliament who share an interest in the subject matter of their group.

The All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group (APMG) is a cross-party coalition of Parliamentarians, manufacturers and industry organisations that works to develop new industrial policy ideas, critique existing government decision-making around manufacturing and help the manufacturing community better engage with the policy process.


*All unattributed images courtesy of Depositphotos.