How are UK manufacturers dealing with digital disruption?

Posted on 9 Aug 2018 by Jonny Williamson

An overview of the insights gleaned from an exclusive roundtable discussion hosted as part of The Manufacturer Director’s Forum, co-hosted with SAP & Bluefin.

The evening’s conversation on digital disruption had input from UK manufacturers operating in a wide variety of different sectors, of varying sizes and at different points in their use of technology and data. Yet, three words cropped up throughout: basics, value, and culture.

digital disruption Being overly- focused on time-consuming minutiae can be a problem for those manufacturers which have eschewed mainstream ERP systems.
Digitalisation may appear to just be about buzzwords, but it is happening and there are many businesses already benefitting from it.

“Digitalisation is a journey. That may sound trite, but it’s true. Transformation is not going to happen overnight or even by year-end. Rather, it should be seen in a similar light to continuous improvement – i.e. an ongoing effort to improve.”

So began proceedings at The Manufacturer’s recent Director’s Forum dinner, held at the Hotel du Vin & Bistro, located in the heart of Birmingham.

“To enable continuous ‘digital’ improvement, forward-thinking organisations are currently focusing efforts on getting the basics right, ensuring their people, processes and systems have the proper foundation to build upon,” The Manufacturer’s Henry Anson continued.

“The ‘basics’ mean identifying what your priorities are, what’s driving them (internally and externally), and how you are approaching them. That insight helps you choose the right technology to achieve your specific business goals, rather than adopting a scatter-gun approach.”

This need to adopt a strategic, end-to-end mindset was picked up by Jeremy Phelps, industry value engineer at SAP – one of the world’s largest enterprise software providers.

“Digitalisation may appear to just be about buzzwords – many certainly exist, more are sure to come; but it is happening and there are many businesses already benefitting from it. Don’t dismiss it without first properly exploring how it could benefit and add value to your organisation – don’t just pay lip service.” Phelps urged.

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Rising industrial maturity

Executives’ awareness around digital technologies and the advantages a more connected operation brings has increased significantly over the past five years, according to Nick Heath, senior director – Manufacturing & Automotive at Bluefin – the international Mindtree SAP practice.

“The argument for digital adoption has largely been won, but many vendors are removed and seem unaware,” Heath said. “Bluefin exhibited at Smart Factory Expo 2017 in November, for example, and I was encouraged by how many knowledgeable executives there were asking high-level, informed questions.”

“Technology may be new and exciting, but what can it actually do? What value can it bring? Can it bring your business into new markets? Can it change how you do things, for the better?”

Jeremy Phelps, industry value engineer, SAP

“Like most companies, we are still trying to determine our digital strategy from a corporate point of view,” noted the head of mechanical engineering at one of the world’s leading aerospace, defence and security manufacturers.

“People on the shop-floor are the ones who have to deal with the day-to-day changes digital technologies and data bring, and are often ahead of senior managers in terms of their knowledge and awareness,” he added.

“But, outside of the few who have an active interest in digitalisation, the ones who and read articles, and attend conferences, etc., there is still a lack of understanding overall in the workforce.”

Revolution or evolution?

The question as to whether the current momentum around digital disruption represented a revolution or an evolution seemed to split the table. Manufacturers have been collecting data and making use of digital technologies for decades; so, in that regard, several delegates believed it to be an evolution.

Today’s advanced digital tools can drive not only significant and necessary incremental improvements, but they can also help create transformative step-changes. In that regard, what is happening is a very real revolution, according to other delegates.

There was also a third opinion, succinctly summed up by the operations director of an innovative Surrey-based chemistry equipment manufacturer, “Does it really matter? More importantly, is it worth waiting for the dust to settle before making your move, i.e. investment? Will the train have already left the station? Will others be so far ahead we can’t catch up?”

What does digital disruption mean to your organisation?

One of the UK’s fastest-growing precision engineering specialists recently employed a graduate over the summer months. They were tasked with answering the question, ‘What does automation look like here?’

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution could return the time that the electronics-driven third industrial revolution took from us – allowing people to re-forge personal, face-to-face relationships, rather than communicating primarily through email,”

 General manager at a major multi-disciplined industrial group

“There wasn’t a label attached to it, it wasn’t a 4.0 or 4IR project; the business recognised that the world is changing, and changing fast, and we needed to address that,” explained the firm’s managing director.

“Advances in technology mean we can do more with it, cheaper and faster than ever before, with new capabilities being introduced at pace.

“We saw the industrial landscape becoming increasingly digitalised and we needed to understand what that meant for our business and, crucially, for our bottom line.”

A multinational automotive components manufacturer has recently appointed a 4.0 ‘director’, according to its global vice president of quality, health, safety and risk.

“Our 4.0 director is very much manufacturing focused, production is clearly the key, but I believe the greatest benefits will come from IT, engineering and manufacturing working together, converging their activities, breaking down organisational siloes and partially involving other departments such as supply chain and finance.”

An engineering lead at the UK division of a global electronics conglomerate said that technology is helping her team to think outside the box and become more flexible and responsive.

“It’s also helping us to capitalise on small opportunities, ones we may have ignored in the past or considered too small fry. They may be small, but they add up over time to noticeable gains,” she explained.

Cultural transformation

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change,”

Business professor, Leon Megginson (often wrongly attributed to Charles Darwin)

As much as technology lies behind the current digital disruption, typically, the biggest prohibitor is culture.

That was a viewpoint endorsed by most delegates, with one noting that technology has helped bring us closer to together, especially across geographic sites, but conversely further apart as well.

“Technology is usually the simple part; in comparison, communication is often far trickier. Creating the methodology and standardising processes to get digital projects off the ground can prove to be a sticking point, and many companies need greater support to help define their journey”.

 “There is still huge misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about how much businesses can do and how far they can go with what they’ve got now, and not just in terms of technologies or platforms, but people and skills as well,”

Nick Heath, senior director – Manufacturing & Automotive, Bluefin