When it comes to the fourth industrial revolution, adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude is unlikely to be a wise strategy. Eugene Smethurst, head of process & automation at AECOM, explains why.
As the birthplace of the first industrial revolution, the UK has enjoyed a long history of prosperity compared to most other nations.
The flipside of this economic power is that the UK remains among the most expensive places in the world to build things. To offset high labour costs, UK-based manufacturers must make products with high intrinsic value, become incredibly efficient, or preferably do both.
The UK isn’t alone, of course – other Western nations such as Germany face much the same challenges. But Germany is now pressing ahead with a broad vision for Industry 4.0, and making progress that could leave the UK behind unless swift action is taken to catch up.
The term Industry 4.0 refers to a nexus of new capabilities that will soon overturn established notions of what can and can’t be done in manufacturing.
These converging trends include information technology advances such as ubiquitous high- frequency communications; cloud technology that scales on demand; software systems that can capture expert knowledge, and the interconnection of hardware via the internet of things (IoT).
Breakthroughs in physical capabilities are maturing at the same time, including 3D printing (additive manufacturing); low-cost sensors; nanotechnology materials, and highly advanced robotics.
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The biotech world is contributing low-cost gene sequencing and artificial DNA, while the emergence of renewable generation and power storage technologies is transforming our energy supply.
Any of these areas alone has the power to disrupt, but taken together they represent a step change in capability – a fourth industrial revolution, as significant as the arrival of the steam engine, the switch to electricity or the rise of digital data.
The German approach to the fourth industrial revolution has been to bring together industry, business, service providers and academia in a concerted effort to exploit these powerful emerging possibilities. Today, there are already 16 major companies, 10 institutions and four trade associations involved in a collaborative smart factory project.
Adopting a structured approach, the German participants have established five working groups, each tackling a layer of capability, from smart materials and intelligent hardware, through to internet-connected capabilities and business services.
Companies involved in the groups include large manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Bosh and Siemens; communications companies including Vodafone and T-Mobile; service providers like Blue Yonder and DHL, and technology giants Microsoft and Google.
Doubling down on the fourth industrial revolution
While the UK is doing excellent work on a number of Industry 4.0 topics, it has yet to crystallise such a clear and consistent vision.
The scale of Industry 4.0 and its potential to disrupt existing businesses means it deserves special attention – and concerted action.
The UK needs to create its own structured network of interested parties, drawing together government, trade bodies, industry and academia. The next steps are to establish the key themes where the country might create competitive advantage and map out an implementation plan.
The extent to which the UK can pool efforts with the Germans to strengthen Europe’s hand in the global market should also be determined.
By taking advantage of available R&D funding through Innovate UK and building better links with SMEs and academia, the UK manufacturing sector has a real opportunity to drive up productivity.
At AECOM, we are already working to encourage this view. We have established a strategic partnership with Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), and we are keen to link up with other institutions to pursue innovative Industry 4.0 equipment or services.
As a large provider of engineering services with a diverse global client base, we’re able to bring insight about the emerging needs of industry in every major field from aviation and automotive to food and consumer goods.
UK manufacturers should of course contribute to the research effort, but they must also prepare themselves for the future. As the Industry 4.0 approach rolls out, a market will develop for modifying existing equipment to work efficiently in tomorrow’s data-rich, fully connected environment.
As a result, it’s already important to consider connectivity when purchasing new equipment.
Similarly, collaboration between manufacturers and suppliers is likely to grow ever closer, driven by trends towards customisation and build-to-order transactions. The successful suppliers will be those who can flex and adapt, build for multiple customers on the same production line and link up with their customers in real time.
No company is yet in a position to fully embrace Industry 4.0, though many are installing pieces of the puzzle. Adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude, however, is unlikely to be a wise strategy. Now is the time to prepare for the fourth industrial revolution.