What can the UK learn from China’s dominance of ‘Smart Factories’?

The UK is among a select number of countries whose advanced manufacturing practices are helping to transform sustainability and workforce knowhow on a global scale.

GlaxoSmithKline in Ware, Hertfordshire, is among 18 new factories to join the Global Lighthouse Network led by the World Economic Forum, for demonstrating leadership in “applying the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to drive operational and environmental impact at scale”.

Smart Factory Smart Factories Digital Tools - Stock Image

Established in 2018, the network serves as a platform to develop, replicate and scale up innovations, creating opportunities for cross-company learning and collaboration and for setting new benchmarks for the global manufacturing community.

There is a specific focus on sharing best practices in future technology adoption, sustainability and circular economics, and skills and training.

Currently 44 showcase factories make up the network, hailing from all corners of the globe. China currently leads the ‘Smart Factory’ race, with 12 sites in the network. Germany is second with four.

A common theme for success appears to be early adoption of AI and advanced analytics that connects end-to-end with suppliers and users, as well as product lifecycle and design, having measurable benefits to productivity and customer satisfaction.

GSK Ware’s pharmaceutical site was reportedly chosen for its implementation of forward-facing technologies that have enabled it to “exploit advanced analytics and neural networks to use existing datasets”.

As a result, GSK Ware has been able to improve its production line speed by 21% while reducing downtime and increasing its yield. This has led to a 10% improvement to overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), according to WEF’s report.

In addition to sharing best practice, the objective of the Global Lighthouse Network is to “support new partnerships and help other manufacturers deploy technology, adopt sustainable practices and transform their workforces”.


The frontrunners have two to three years’ head start compared to their peers. That should set off alarm bells for all manufacturers


Perhaps unsurprisingly, Germany leads Europe by investing in cloud-based data platforms at multiple sites, while combining digital solutions in design and assembly elsewhere that in one instance had increased productivity by 24% and reduced cycle time by 60%.

Brazil headlines Latin America’s success by deploying advanced technologies to improve accountability and end-to-end connectivity via a linked ecosystem through value-chain dealers, customers and workers.

One firm also utilises advanced analytics for predictive maintenance purposes, a “digital twin” of its processing plant, and a proprietary data platform to enable the “exponential scale-up of new algorithms across production”.

The report has been compiled by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with US consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company.

“Manufacturing is often the starting point for innovating a new, company-wide operating system powered by the latest technology to achieve new levels of sustainability, agility, speed-to-market, and productivity,” said Enno de Boer, partner and head of McKinsey & Company’s Global Manufacturing Practice.

“This year, we believe the Global Lighthouse Network has found the secret sauce to overcome pilot purgatory and generate impact at scale. “Moreover, by now the frontrunners have two to three years’ head start compared to their peers. That should set off alarm bells for all manufacturers that are still busy trying to prove technology’s value instead of using technology to change the way they work.”

“This [Industry 4.0] transition must focus on sustainability and efforts dedicated to reskilling and empowering people,” commented Francisco Betti, head of shaping the future of advanced manufacturing and production, World Economic Forum.