UK must accelerate digitalisation to counter uncertainty

Posted on 5 Jul 2017 by Jonny Williamson

Business leaders from across industry have called for the rapid acceleration of digitalisation to counter uncertainty in the economy, as well as provide a much-needed boost to productivity and skills.

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When asked how good the UK is at providing the skills for the next generation, as well as up-skilling existing workforces required for the fast adoption of new digital technologies, the picture was stark.

Asked how fast the UK is embracing the digitalisation of existing manufacturing operations – and driving these to boost competitiveness, almost half (44%) felt Britain was too slow.

Almost a fifth (19%) felt the UK was among the fastest, and the remaining 37% felt the UK was average.

Siemens polled 30 CEOs and board level executives of the UK’s leading small and large businesses at a summit held last week at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

The summit brought together business leaders from the automotive, utilities, construction, aerospace, and services sectors to discuss the challenges facing the UK economy over the next two years.

Themed around digitalisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the grouping discussed how the UK could embrace new digital technologies. The Industrial Digitalisation Review, led by Siemens UK CEO Juergen Maier on behalf of business for government, was used as the foundation of the discussion, and the input will be factored into its conclusions which are due later in the summer.

Digital skills

When asked how good the UK is at providing the skills for the next generation, as well as up-skilling existing workforces required for the fast adoption of new digital technologies, the picture was stark.

The majority (85%) said the lack of advanced digital skills in the workforce was holding back the UK in the global technology race. Only 15% said the UK was among the most skilled.

The business leaders agreed that industry should work with government and higher education institutions to showcase and spread best practice in learning and development, focused on both the workforce of the future, and the existing workforce.

Attendees agreed that a defined national skills standard for digital engineering should inform teaching and learning in schools, colleges and universities.

Strong leadership

When asked ‘how good the UK is at providing a high sense of ambition and leadership for the need to accelerate the creation of world leading industrial technologies’, most (82%) of business leaders felt the UK was failing to lead and be ambitious enough to create new technologies. Less than a fifth (18%) felt the UK was world beating.

Consensus emerged that part of the problem stemmed from the lack of a truly joined-up national industrial and digital strategy. This has been amplified by a lack of awareness in smaller companies focused on surviving and not on developing the strategies to start thriving in domestic and global markets.

Juergen Maier, CEO of Siemens in the UK, explained: “There is an appetite to accelerate digitalisation in the UK, but lack of leadership and skills hold us back.

“The consensus was overwhelmingly clear – we need to rapidly retrain the existing labour force to cope with changes in technologies and get the new entrants the best possible start with renewed investment in education and technical digital skills.

“Allied to this was the need for UK PLC to develop a brand for its innovation that is accessible and well understood nationally and internationally.”

Business leaders overall felt the UK offered a competitive labour market that makes for a flexible approach to the implementation of new technologies using a healthy mix of manual and automated processes.

This mix of capabilities was described as especially effective as UK factories deploy much more flexible and demand driven production cells using low cost technologies like collaborative robots (cobots) and augmented reality, that work alongside and in support of the human operative.

Brian Holliday, managing director – Siemens Digital Factory, added: “The consensus was clear – the foundations for a bright digital future are already here. World-beating research, a flexible workforce and a capable Information Technology sector are a great start.

“But, it’s evident to our senior leaders that UK industry hasn’t a moment to lose and must invest in digital skills, innovation and deployment if we are to progress in this accelerating global race.”

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