What will manufacturing look like in 2040?

Posted on 10 Feb 2023 by Jonny Williamson

The inaugural InterAct conference set out a vision for a future that delivers for everyone and the environment. Manufacturing underpins such a future and a subsequent panel discussion debated the mindset, skills and support needed to deliver it. Jonny Williamson reports.

*Click here to read the key takeaways from the conference’s discussions, delivered by a diverse roster of speakers drawn from across industry, policy, think tanks and academia.

Panellists – left to right  

InterAct conference

Will manufacturing be more inclusive by 2040?

CC: To truly optimise the future of manufacturing it needs to be diverse and inclusive. We need to harness all the talent and potential we can from wherever we can. The lack of diversity in manufacturing currently represents a huge missed opportunity.

Only around 12% of the automotive industry workforce are women. With currently 90,000 vacancies within UK manufacturing, it’s not hard to see we need to be fishing from a much bigger pool.

There isn’t and never will be a single pathway into manufacturing or STEM, more broadly. Our focus needs to be on having a long-term plan that prioritises and supports innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and skills for the future.

What’s critical is that we – as individuals and collectively – strive to create an environment in which people can be successful within industry and that manufacturing can thrive in the UK.

The 2040 timeframe doesn’t give us long to fix this issue. It’s not sufficient to say we just need to do more STEM in schools. That’s absolutely a good thing to do but it’s not a panacea.

If we want to affect this transformation of manufacturing then we have to influence change more broadly. There’s a real urgency to this. We all have influence and we need to start proactively asserting it.

FK: Digitalisation and technology can have a dramatic impact in enabling people to work in industry without having to physically be in a factory environment. For example, high-demand skills in programming, cybersecurity and data analysis can offer disabled workers a pathway into a career that historically might not have been available.

TB: I’ll be controversial and say I don’t feel manufacturing is very exclusive. We’ll take anyone that will work hard, regardless of their personal or educational background.

Will humans have been taken out of the loop by 2040?

CP: When the Made Smarter Review was published, many ministers asked whether widescale automation and digitalisation would decimate manufacturing jobs. Absolutely not. The report projected the creation of 175,000 net new UK jobs.

There are three times as many industrial robots in Japan as in the UK yet Japan’s manufacturing industry employs three times as many people as UK manufacturing. Germany has three-time as many robots as the UK but employs twice as many people. So, increasing robot density doesn’t automatically result in fewer jobs.

FK: I don’t think we could even if we tried. Fifteen years from now, skills will still be one of the most important productivity factors in manufacturing. Yes, robots can perform many tasks and that will only increase but there will always have limitations.

Whereas, the uniquely human capacity to think, create, innovate and problem-solve is unlimited. It will never be replicated or replaced by machines. We may see a reduction in the number of people within the loop but you will never eliminate people entirely. Not least because they essentially create the loop.

CC: What does a smart factory or a connected supply chain look like? It’s a combination of systems and people, they’re intertwined and you have to deal with that reality. There are very few totally autonomous things. You’ll increasingly see that being possible, but something that combines the best of human and digital capabilities is probably the best approach.

Collaborative robots, for example. Decisions being taken as a combination of machines and people in most cases. Frequently we hear that things go wrong because people were involved. That’s also true of all the things that go right. Also, machines don’t get everything right the first time either. No system I’ve ever been involved with has just turned on and worked right out of the box. So, I think there’s still a coexistence period for most things.

TB: Humans out of the loop is happening to a greater extent and much faster in service industries than manufacturing because it is far easier to move electrons than atoms. The rollout of something new in services is infinitely quicker and costs basically nothing.

Take one example; autonomous vehicles. There are around 1.5 billion road vehicles in the world. About 80 million cars are manufactured a year, so that’s a two percent replacement rate. Electric vehicles represent between eight and nine million, a tenth of that or 0.2%. Most EVs aren’t yet fully autonomous, so when we think of humans out of the loop of driving, it’s decades before it happens in any material way because we’re not retrofitting old cars.

Will we have moved beyond the I (narrow, specific) or T-shaped (broader knowledge) competency model by 2040?  

CC: Diversity of people is important. You need narrow-focus specialists to make progress but you also need people who can move comfortably in cross-functional teams. It’s not that we need to convert from I’s to T’s or we don’t value I’s anymore, whatever that means; what matters is having the right blend of different skill sets.

Also, how you set up your organisation and how it works may partly define how people behave. I’m not sure people are intrinsically an I or a T or an X, they may function differently in different environments.  Some production systems, company systems and decision-making systems are incredibly inflexible and very siloed, and people will operate in that way.

It’s taking more of a systems-based approach which avoids siloed thinking and combines the right blend of people with an appropriate framework and oversight from a cross-functional leader capable of managing change.

KD: A key focus in my business is helping everybody play to their strengths and getting the best out of them for that. We conducted a big piece of work to ensure we’re helping our neurodivergent employees to play to their strengths and it made us realise that we weren’t doing that for those without a recognised neurodivergence. We’ve worked to turn that around.

Will engagement between manufacturers and schools be stronger by 2040?

KD: I hope so because getting schools to engage with us as local employers is unbelievably difficult. Through no fault of their own, teachers are incredibly busy and schools have a lot on their plate. But we continue to see a huge emphasis on university pathways because that’s how schools receive the most funding and support. The system needs reprogramming right from the very start.

CC: This is a national challenge with no easy or right answer. I’ve decided to try in a small way to do something by helping my local school. I recently joined the school’s Board of Governors, I live in Derby which has a lot of engineering firms, and the school is looking to make connections with such firms.

Even when they have someone like me with a lot of contacts in industry, making those connections is quite difficult. The SMEs, who we try to engage with, tend to be both time and cash-strapped. I also see a gap between what the schools can offer in terms of the readiness of students to go into those environments and what the SMEs are ready to take.

CP: Engagement with schools has come up in almost every industry event I’ve attended over the past decade. How can we connect more businesses with schools? And that’s not just manufacturers, that’s all businesses. Is that doable for SMEs who are incredibly time-poor but may want to engage?

I think it’s a lot to put on SMEs to solve the challenge of inspiring more young people to go into manufacturing and engineering. There’s an awful lot more we can and should be doing. Take T levels, for example. My 17-year-old daughter wants to go into engineering so she and I went to a college offering T levels rather than A levels.

They couldn’t tell us with any certainty what the placement would involve, which company it would be with or when exactly it would be. So, from a parental perspective, I wasn’t sold on it. That’s a huge issue and not one we can expect an SME to fix.

Will manufacturing be more circular by 2040 and how can technology accelerate help that?

KD:  In my business, we’ve got a heck of a lot to learn about our supply chains and where products and materials actually go. I’m keen to understand whether digital solutions can help to unlock that and provide transparency.

The first leap is always the most difficult, so speaking on behalf of SMEs, we need readily accessible tools to demystify all of this and help us get started.

FK: The line between digitalisation and other investments such as skills, physical capital and sustainability is increasingly blurred because digital has a significant role to play in ensuring efficiency across all parts of a business. We’re seeing manufacturers continuously investing and moving forward towards reducing waste, becoming more efficient and embracing circularity – digital products are a key part of that transition.

CC: A circular economy, or a fairly circular economy, needs an enormously broad range of things to happen to enable it – incentives, investments, skills, business models, materials and behaviours.

Take one area, materials. Numerous materials are currently seen as not being high-value or scarce enough to be recycled, so they aren’t being reused. It’s easier and cheaper to just discard them and use virgin materials for certain product areas and types. That needs to change, the incentives around that need to change, as do business models.

There’s an enormous amount of waste in textiles and the fashion industry, in the consumer electronics sector, in many industries. Yes, there are companies in most industries and markets promoting circularity and, in some cases, actually living it but it’s about accelerating progress. We need to see progress on this now if we have any chance of making it happen at scale by 2040. Which is only 18 years away, don’t forget.

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