Investment in digital manufacturing being held back despite proven benefits

Posted on 16 Oct 2019 by Jonny Williamson

Industrial businesses across the Sheffield City Region are holding back on investment in productivity-improving technologies such as robotics and automation because of poor access to funding, skills and hands-on ‘demonstrators’.

In the first comprehensive review of smart industrial technology uptake in the region, the Regional Technology Foresight report provides an in-depth investigation into a broad suite of what are often termed ‘Industry 4.0’ technologies.

These range from artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics through to augmented reality, metrology and additive manufacture.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is about the fusion of the physical, digital and virtual worlds - Industry 4.0 Infographic

The report was published by researchers at the University of Sheffield in collaboration with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).

One of the report’s authors, Dr Jorge Martins, principal investigator at the Regional Technology Foresight project, commented: “We wanted to assess where companies in the region feel they stand in terms of technological capabilities but we also want a vision to emerge of what might be important to firms in the Sheffield City Region in the near future.”

“Our goal is to help policy makers and industry prioritise the technology areas that will have the biggest and most beneficial impact on performance. Once we know that, we can determine what external support is needed as part of a joined-up approach to regional economic strategy.”

His colleague on the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) funded project, Dr Ivan Rajic, added: “Presently, there are problems prioritising which technology is important for companies, so we are trying to determine where efforts should be focused.

“Demand is there, we just need to direct businesses to the support that is already available.”

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The report, the second to be published by the Regional Technology Foresight team, found that many of the region’s small and medium-sized businesses want to innovate, but, due to lack of funds and skills, adopting new technology is not a business priority.

Instead, firms prefer to invest their limited resources on more immediate activities.

Changing this climate is critical to improving productivity in the region and to moving higher up the value chain in manufacturing.

The report shows that the global vendors of industrial digitalisation often overlook smaller and medium-sized firms in pursuit of larger contracts; presenting an opportunity for agile and innovative tech firms to adapt their digital offering to secure new work.

digital manufacturing - Smart Factories Industrial Robots - Manufacturing Skills Gap - Digital Technologies Smart Factory Automation Robots Digital Tools - Stock Image

Automation and robotics

The authors found ‘substantial’ interest in automation, including robotic solutions, and businesses recognised the clear potential benefits in implementing autonomous systems. However, the cost of introducing automation and a perceived lack of a skills programme to operate systems were both identified as barriers to adoption.

Robotics and autonomous systems should be a priority technology area, said the report, because there is considerable interest among firms, there is active research on overcoming the problems companies face and simpler solutions are already feasible for SMEs.

The report also asked businesses about advanced technology areas such as additive manufacturing, finishing, augmented reality and virtual reality, all areas which were considered by firms low on their immediate agendas, according to the report.

*All images courtesy of Depositphotos