The transformation of industry in Britain into 'digitally-connected factories of the future' took a big step forward recently at a conference at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) near Coventry.
Around 150 leading engineers, business people and academics from Germany, the UK, the Netherlands and Italy heard how digitised factories will be developed in Britain and across the world, in a more connected and collaborative way, to achieve two main objectives: find customer value, and increase productivity.
Opening the conference – the first of this scale on Industry 4.0 in the UK – MTC chief executive, Clive Hickman commented that the MTC was proud to play a leading role in the development of digitising technologies and in encouraging British industry to collaborate in order to reap the benefits of Industry 4.0.
Dr Hickman added: “The MTC has played a key role in the development of Industry 4.0 so far in the UK, by housing the country’s first digital factory demonstrator. It is now vital that we continue to invest in these technologies and skills, and encourage uptake throughout the UK manufacturing sector.”
The German Ambassador to the UK, Dr Peter Ammon, said that manufacturing accounts for 22% of GDP in Germany, employs 15 million people, and is a major driver of exports, but that Germany could not rest on its laurels.
“Making digital information and communication technology usable for industry will be key to maintaining our competitiveness internationally. 80% of German businesses think that their value chain will be digitised substantially by 2020,” the German ambassador said.
He added that a recent study in Germany found that industrial companies were predicting that they would invest a total of €40bn in this area by the same date.
Martin Donnelly, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, gave his backing to Industry 4.0. The Government has recently sent representatives to (more than one) EU roundtables on the subject to learn about European countries’ adoption of these digital techniques for capturing value.
Such technology includes product-to-machine communication for the mass customisation of products in a production line, 3D visualisation to improve the design of more complicated production layouts and technologies that enable more flexible manufacturing, like collaborative robots.
The conference hosted by the MTC, part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, revealed that companies in Britain are already using Industry 4.0-type technologies.
Factory digitisation is a core focus for the HVM Catapult and Innovate UK – the Government’s innovation agency – going into 2016.
At Siemens’ Congleton factory, for example, products will require more and more customisation and configuration, as global customers’ needs increasingly vary from the standard model variants.
Congleton 2020 is a new programme where strategic theme owners are assessing what the site’s business and supply chain will look like in 2020. The factory is using Industry 4.0 thinking and emerging technology to affect this change.
Siemens are combining digital manufacturing tools with product design tools to help visualise the complexity of the new factory demands. This is supported by the MTC’s immersive 3D Computer Aided Virtual Environment, or ‘CAVE’ to enable users to visualise complicated production layouts.
Emerging technologies, such as a collaborative robot lab and smart glasses, are also being deployed to make the new manufacturing systems more efficient and flexible.
At engineering group Meggitt, Industry 4.0 is called M4 – or Meggitt Modular Modifiable Manufacturing. Chief technology officer, Keith Jackson revealed how the need to invest in digital technologies in manufacture has increased in step with current business demands on the company – such as traceability, increasingly complex and low volume parts, automation and rapid product maturity.
The company is now using data analytics as standard to reveal ‘product and factory DNA’ to measure productivity performance and it also uses computer simulation to forecast ‘what-if scenarios’ and assess manufacturing system key performance indicators. This avoids changing manufacturing systems before they are established.
The MTC’s Dr Lina Huertas explained how digitising manufacturing increases the potential for business improvement, innovation and change. She said it is important to know how much value a company can extract from its data and advised companies to try to understand their own ‘digitisation journeys’ and not to go too far without expert advice, or it could be expensive to undo the mistakes.
“The best thing we can do at the MTC is to demonstrate the technology involved and that it can give you the right business benefits,” she said.