Professor Sam Turner, CTO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult believes we must start making a stronger and better case for adoption now, because without the competitive advantage Industry 4.0 technologies deliver, manufacturers might well struggle in the uncertain times that lie ahead.
Businesses in the UK have a track record of conservative uptake of new technologies. We almost missed the Third Industrial Revolution – robotics – which is what gave extra urgency to the Made Smarter Review presented to government last year.
The Made Smarter team, led by Juergen Maier of Siemens, is seeking substantial investment from government in programmes that accelerate the adoption of digital technologies among manufacturers.
There are encouraging signs of government’s readiness to include that in its industrial strategy, although a wider picture will not be revealed until the autumn. Yet the urgency remains.
In this interview with The Manufacturer’s editorial director Nick Peters, Professor Sam Turner, CTO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC), suggests that the way forward is to change the messaging around 4.0 from evangelising about the virtues of the technology to presenting much more focused, real-life examples of how it is already helping companies develop competitive advantage.
How confident are you that support for the digitalisation of manufacturing is going to be part of the government’s industrial strategy?
Sam Turner: There’s been strong support for Made Smarter Review recommendations, and it does get to the heart of where we need to act collectively and nationally.
As for financial backing, we’re already seeing signs of that coming through, and I think there’s such huge support across the manufacturing industries in the UK and across parts of government that something will be done and significant investment made. We expect to see more later this year.
That’s really important, isn’t it? Because we’ve all been talking about uptake of the 4.0 technologies for a couple of years or more now, but it’s not going as widely or as deeply as you and others involved in the Made Smarter Review had wished for.
Adoption of technology in the UK has been slow, or slower than we’d like. And while there’s been messaging that this is the right thing to do for a year or two, I think there’s a risk of coming across as a bit ‘preachy’.
Therefore, we’ve got to demonstrate to UK businesses actual examples, case studies of where the uptake of technology improves business performance, addressing standard challenges around productivity, quality, creating new business opportunities, and providing clear support for businesses, so that they understand where technology can play a role in addressing their needs.
Therefore, rather than selling technology as a panacea, it’s understanding the current business needs of UK manufacturing, and where can these technologies help to address those needs.
We’re hearing from a lot of businesses that it’s not clear for the average business what the tangible outcome will be, what’s the next step to take. So, showcasing that opportunity is crucial, offering examples of real, tangible peer-to-peer use cases.
I also think we need technology demonstrators available in open-access environments, where people can come and understand, explore and play and see how technology can solve their business problems.
We must really examine what businesses need to achieve and where technology can play a role in helping us improve performance, productivity and product quality – and create new business opportunities.
I wonder if the messaging has been driven by IT vendors eager to sell big systems? Perhaps it needs a more practical plug-and-play approach, which I know you personally favour.
Well, I think the big IT vendors have the power and influence to get the message out there, so, they are the primary source of that message. But unless we can show the peer-to-peer examples, the plug-and-play examples of discreet installations of technology, then there’s a risk that it becomes out of reach for most businesses.
I’ve heard some businesses saying, you know, Industry 4.0 is great, we like the sound of this, but we can’t afford the £15m that it’s going to cost to get started.
The AMRC recently hosted a fantastic exhibit, which was donated by the MTA, demonstrating that it doesn’t matter what kind of kit you’ve got on your shopfloor, digitalisation is availableat a low price to everybody.
Yes, the mistaken belief that you need to start with new kit and new infrastructure is one of the barriers to the adoption that we’re trying to drive. The example that the AMRC put together had a Colchester lathe, an early 20th-century- level bit of kit.
For a few hundred quid – or a couple of thousand, depending on the data you wanted, – it captures real-life, valuable information that can help any organisation get better control in manufacturing processes and quality. It’s cheap, it’s easy to interface with any existing assets, and you can start gathering data, gathering insights, and become able to make better decisions and improve performance.
What do you really believe is needed to turbocharge this process and give it a good shove forward?
One of the major barriers we’ve seen – and it’s been a problem for years – is businesses wondering, ‘Where do we start? Why do we start? And where’s the right application of technology for our particular business? Do we go to the big vendors? How do we find smaller offerings?’
To resolve this, we need to develop interactive technology demonstrators in places such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and other research and innovation organisations, or maybe technology providers, where you can come and explore how that technology can be applied to your own need.
Evidencing the business and use case is essential, rather than just evangelising – ‘This is important!’ And that’s the change we’re trying to enact now, at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, and also through the Made Smarter Review and its recommendations.
We want to be really hand-holding businesses through the steps they need to take to recognise where technology can pay well in improving their performance, understanding who can provide that for them, be it signposting to a commercial vendor or supporting innovation projects, but also finding out where to find the finance and the funding to get started.
So, you see this as a role that the High Value Manufacturing Catapult network can and will perform?
The demonstration of technology, the signposting, the business support is a fundamental part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult strategy. It’s part of our duty to the UK taxpayer to support this.
In terms of the wider business support, that’s going to mean being in partnership with others. We don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to get to all the businesses we need to reach, so that means working in partnership with those in the regions, with LEPs, with banks and other commercial institutions – partnering with other research and innovation organisations.
Fortunately, there’s a strong network that can provide that support to business. Shaping that network and being able to point businesses to it is a crucial part of our strategy.
Wasn’t the point of the Made Smarter Review, that it’s hard for manufacturers to find that point of entry where they can go in and say, ‘I need help.’ That’s the bit that’s missing at the moment. That’s the bit we need.
Currently, there are a lot of players who can offer support, but it’s confusing. That’s why we see the High Value Manufacturing Catapult as not just a player, but intrinsic in pulling together that coherent network, which is what we’re committed to do as part of the Made Smarter Review. We’re fully behind those recommendations and the need to pull together this coherent network is crucial.
We see ourselves at the heart of that, working regionally with LEPs, universities and businesses – but it’s not just a collection of things, it’s got to be a common architecture, so a business anywhere in the UK has the same opportunity to meet their needs, irrespective of their location, size and sector.
Uncertainty is often quoted as being one of the things that holds companies back. But surely the ones most likely to win out through a time of uncertainty are the ones who say, “Right, we need to get a competitive advantage,” and that’s what adoption can give you. Get on with it now, and you’re more likely to weather whatever storms lie ahead.
Change drives uncertainty, and we’re in a time of rapid change, whether it’s Brexit or the technology, or changing socioeconomic norms. The worst thing to do in times of change is stand and wait, which is why 4.0 adoption is crucial now.
Those who are going to win out are those who move fastest and move quickest, not wait for the next iteration of the technology to come along, or wait for certainty around Brexit.
Let’s take Brexit explicitly. The best thing we can do is to make sure that the UK is the most compelling place to do business, and that has to be achieved, in part, by an increased investment in technology.
Look at the great companies and manufacturing businesses we have, really resilient supply chains that we’ve retained, and the fantastic research and innovation base we have. Bring those things together and we have the right ingredients for UK businesses to create a competitive advantage for themselves.
It’s not just about being attractive. There’s also the imperative that post-Brexit we may have to have more UK content in certain of our products, certainly automobiles, to call them British. That means we’re going to have to re-shore a lot of the processes that are currently offshore.
Automotive’s a great example. There is real pressure now on the automotive OEMs based in the UK to increase UK content. And that’ll be done, not through protectionism, but by ensuring that the UK supply chain’s in the right place.
There’s a real desire to do that, in a way there perhaps hasn’t been for decades, to increase UK manufacturing content. To make that the right answer for those OEMs, we must invest in the technology.
New opportunities will open up because of a shift to re-shoring UK content and maximising UK content for automotive and for some other sectors. But the opportunities don’t come just because you’re in the right place in the UK. It’s very much about being competitive, being highly productive, and delivering high-quality products.
Are you excited about the future, or are you frankly a bit nervous about the way it’s going to go for UK manufacturing?
I’m excited in the most part. I think there are great opportunities afoot. I think the UK as a nation responds well in times of change and challenge, and that’s certainly where we are right now, be that Brexit, or the pace of change of technology that we’re witnessing. And I do think we have the right ingredients, in terms of a resilient manufacturing sector, with some great exemplar businesses.
We have a strong research and innovation network. If we can get growing leverage from that, we can see real opportunities for the UK. And actually, in this particular space of ‘digital meets manufacturing’, we have a great tech sector, which maybe has yet to cast its gaze firmly on the opportunities manufacturing offers – because huge opportunities are certainly there, both for manufacturing and the wider tech communities.
So, I am optimistic. I think the best way we can differentiate ourselves and create opportunities from risks such as Brexit is to invest in technology, create differential capability, and improve our overall performance as UK businesses.
UK’s largest digital manufacturing showcase returns in 2018
The Manufacturer’s Digital Manufacturing Week brings together technology, finance and manufacturers in an annual celebration of British industry.
Six thousand future-facing manufacturing executives in the same place, at the same time – with enough space to reach out to one another and build better businesses.
That, in a nutshell, is what we are bringing to the table with Digital Manufacturing Week 2018 – five days of factory tours, awards, workshops and high-level conferences that reach a crescendo in the middle of November in everyone’s favourite city.
13 – 16 November, Exhibition Centre Liverpool