UK urged to grasp digital manufacturing opportunities

The digital revolution transforming global manufacturing will affect almost every aspect of people's lives, changing the nature of businesses and demanding new skills. Now leading experts on digital manufacturing have said the UK should grasp the opportunities offered by the latest digital technologies.

At a high-powered conference by the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry, industrial leaders from across Europe said the current digital manufacturing revolution opened up huge potential, but companies needed to invest in intelligent automation and the best people to reap the benefits.

The event – Digitising Manufacturing 2016 – aimed to mobilise industry, working with government and private organisations to embrace change and drive the digitisation of the UK manufacturing sector.

Among those attending was Tim Dafforn, chief scientific adviser at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS); Ernst Stöckl-Pukall, head of division in the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy; Tom Egan of the UK Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Leadership Group, and Tim Page, senior policy officer at the TUC.

They were joined by senior representatives from British, German and Swedish industry and representatives from Siemens, Bosch Rexroth, Hayward Tyler and the British Standards Institute.

Stöckl-Pukall said the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy was about to publish its Digital Strategy 2025 to cover growth, employment, skills and the regulatory framework.

He explained: “In Germany, a digital infrastructure is planned which will provide internet speeds of at least 50mbps for everyone in the country by 2018.

“By 2025, this will have been upgraded to a gigabit fibre-optic network for all business. A favourable regulatory environment will encourage private investment, and investment funds will be available to support nationwide coverage.”

Dafforn said BEIS recognised the fundamental principles of the fourth industrial revolution – digital manufacturing, which included interconnectivity between businesses, supply chains, customers and even products themselves, as well as scalable and secure cloud data storage and automated intelligence.

The opportunities from digital technologies are reportedly limitless - image courtesy of The Manufacturing Technology Centre.
The opportunities from digital technologies are reportedly limitless – image courtesy of MTC.

He said: “Industry 4.0 accelerates the ‘idea to market’ process, draws upon the UK’s design strengths and releases the skills of the digital generation.”

Professor Ken Young, MTC technology director, said many businesses still found the issue of industry 4.0 confusing and this is where organisations like the MTC and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC) can provide advice, tools to help the process and access to funding.

He added: “The pace of change and innovation is increasing and the digitising of the manufacturing sector is going to have an impact on everybody. However, I am impressed by the distance travelled since the 2015 conference which is a great sign of things to come.”

Page from the TUC said evidence showed that technology was a net creator of jobs, but they were different kinds of jobs, and technology created societal changes.

He added: “The UK can create good jobs with an intelligent, sustainable industrial strategy, engaging government, businesses and trade unions. Digital manufacturing need not destroy jobs if new technology and processes are introduced in an intelligent way. This requires strong leadership and focus.”

Noting that the opportunities associated with digital manufacturing are particular relevant for small and medium-sized businesses, the MTC’s Dr Lina Huertas commented: “A lot of work has been done to develop a range of tools and methods to help SMEs overcome some of the challenges to digitisation and this conference was a great opportunity to let people know about the help available to them.”