The future of Manufacturing

Posted on 10 Dec 2020 by Tom Lane

Professor Tim Minshall offers his insights into what’s next for the industry at the end of a turbulent year.

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on manufacturing firms, Professor Tim Minshall says, particularly in relation to industrial digital technologies. This has been reflected in how attitudes towards adopting tech have moved from ‘nice to have’ to ‘must have’, as well as the greatly reduced time from idea to application and adoption.

He highlights the “momentous achievement” of VentilatorChallengeUK, which provided “a staggering increase in the production capability available to scale the volume of available ventilators” by drawing together the very best of UK manufacturing and coordinating it in such a way that the right people were doing the right things at the right time.

The feat was made possible by the contributions of every organisation involved – from medical device specialists through to firms operating in a range of other sectors – all adopting digital technologies to accelerate the flow of information and enable the rapid coordination of supply chains.

“Airbus, Siemens and the AMRC, for example, were assembling ventilators on behalf of the ventilator manufacturer Penlon,” Tim explains. “These non-medical firms had to get up to speed in an area they knew very little about. The use of augmented reality technologies such as Microsoft’s HoloLens enabled this extraordinary transfer of knowledge at scale and at speed.”

There are many other examples that could have been discussed, but what’s most important, Tim says, is that the learning isn’t lost as we return to something resembling ‘business as usual’.


“We want to maintain this extraordinary enhanced capability for the ‘day job’,” he says. A key question, therefore, is without this crisis or imperative, how do we maintain this sense of collaboration and community to achieve things at an extraordinary level of scale and speed?

Part of the answer lies in the wider adoption of industrial digital technologies, both in doing something completely new, as well as taking existing technologies and encouraging people to use them.

“These are both important pieces of the same jigsaw, but they have historically been considered as separate. We’ve seen and continue to see these being pushed together,” Tim continues.

“The collapse in the distance between innovation and adoption has also been clearly seen during COVID-19. As a result, there are quite remarkable things happening very quickly.”

Maintaining competitive advantage

Almost every nation in the world has some form of industrial digitalisation strategy. So, what is the UK doing that’s different? What’s our USP, our competitive advantage?

“We need to be selective,” Tim advises. “To do that, we need to understand what the market opportunities really are, what technologies we’ve got and are particularly good at, and what capabilities we’ve got to deploy those technologies in the most effective way.”

Tim offers some further words of advice, drawing upon concepts being developed with the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC).

“We need to consider, what resources do we need to put into what technologies to ensure the UK can develop competitive advantage? That’s logical and we need to be doing it; in fact, UKRI are doing a fantastic job making sure that we do invest in the right technologies for the future.

“Yet, technology alone doesn’t do anything; it’s people who can understand, develop and deploy these technologies. So, it’s been fantastic to see an increased recognition of the importance of skills tied to technology.”

A collaboration between the HVMC, TWI, NPL and IfM, funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, has led to a report ( on the links between the development of technology and the development of skills.

By exploring how other nations integrate the development of technologies with the development of skills, the report offers several lessons that the UK could deploy in its own context.

The report highlights that it’s not only the development of technologies and the related skills that need to be integrated; these developments need to be considered in parallel with the transformation – or creation – of appropriate supply chain capabilities.

Tim Minshall is Dr John C Taylor Professor of Innovation & Head of the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) at the University of Cambridge
Tim Minshall is Dr John C Taylor Professor of Innovation & Head of the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) at the University of Cambridge

“It’s absolutely critical we connect the development of the three areas of technologies, skills and supply chains, and consider them to be ‘legs of the same stool’, not separate things,” Tim concludes.

Drawing the key themes together, he notes that there is a growing community of those who recognise the importance of taking this ‘three legged stool’ concept forward to ensure that the UK manufacturing sector can be well positioned not just for the immediate challenge of January 1, 2021 but, critically, for the longer term.

“An effective way to do that is by bringing key industry and policy stakeholders together through mechanisms such as the co-creation of roadmaps. Roadmaps – such as those currently being developed across multiple UK manufacturing sectors with the support of the HVMC and IfM – can identify the barriers across technologies, skills and supply chains that need to be overcome to address the most compelling opportunities for the UK.

“And, most importantly, for a coordinated approach to be taken to targeting of resources to overcome these barriers.”

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