Unleashing the potential of our industries and workforce is the strong yet constant message we hear as Britain, and beyond, struggles to grapple with the level of change we are experiencing during this 4th Industrial Revolution. This was echoed last week by Stephen Phipson CBE, CEO of EEF , at the launch of the Making Manufacturing Smarter Commission, established with the ambitious goals to advance digital developments in our manufacturing sector.
The commission will look to embrace digitisation in order to boost productivity, create more highly-skilled jobs and enable more efficient, cleaner production systems, as part of the government’s modern Industrial Strategy. It is quite rightly prioritising three main challenges: leadership; adoption of ICT and innovation.
There is clearly a need for such transformative measures. We are big supporters of embracing the latest disruptive technologies in order to reimagine the success of businesses across the UK, and having a focus on manufacturing is vital given the role this plays within the UK economy – especially against the backdrop of the continued uncertainty around Brexit. However, considering the scale of the challenge, it raises concerns about the pace of change.
This commission came out the government’s Made Smarter Review, announced nearly one year ago, ably led by industry chief Jürgen Maier, the UK and Ireland boss of German engineering giant Siemens. The proposals outlined in the review claimed to show how Britain’s manufacturing sector could unlock £455bn over the next decade, by putting us at the forefront of new technologies; robotics, big data, machine learning, 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, creating new industries to boost productivity and creating thousands of highly skilled, better paid jobs.
There’s no doubt that progress has been made. The establishment of the commission itself, and the positive steps about the first pilot for the adoption of digital technology by manufacturers looking to be held in the North West are good examples of this. But equally, some of the same claims discussed one year ago were rolled out once again – already one year into the ten years’ discussed, highlighting a worrying lack of pace.
Yet in the meantime, we know that manufacturers are struggling – to rethink the way they operate, to understand how best to automate processes and to recharge their leadership with the business intelligence and insight needed to reshape for future success. The speed of change in the digital arena just isn’t stopping – the disruptive technologies that provide the opportunity to ensure Britain is a leader need to be embraced now.
And yesterday’s report itself states that the faster the adoption of technology, the greater the investment will be in more manufacturing taking place in the UK. One example focused on how the automation of manufacturing processes – coupled with real-time process monitoring and re-engineering - can result in radical improvements in cost efficiency and accuracy, allowing work to move back to the UK from low-wage economies and strengthening UK supply chains.
And we strongly agree with Jürgen Maier’s statement from yesterday, which said:
“The Made Smarter Commission promises to deliver our core recommendation of driving digitalisation across UK and invigorating industrial strategy. We need now more than ever to unite business, employees and government behind a strategy that boosts industrial productivity and improves living standards. We will build on our north west pilot and look at how we can scale our efforts up across the country. If we get this right I believe we can kick start a new industrial revolution, that puts digital tech at the centre of economic policy making.”
These are rousing statements without a doubt. And impressive figures are at stake as outlined in the report - the UK sits in the top 10 largest global manufacturing economies and is the fourth largest in the EU. In 2017, manufacturing GVA totalled £186 billion, supporting 2.7 million jobs (with estimates of 5 million across the whole manufacturing value chain) and still accounts for 48% of the UK total exports of goods and services.
However, questions remain – as I raised following last year’s review – as to whether our industry can make the necessary changes to drive this innovation at the required speed of adoption. Because let’s be honest – we all want to ensure we play a part in building a strong, sustainable Britain that is firing on all digital cylinders. But to make this happen at pace requires a concerted effort and focus, to ensure we embrace the digital opportunity – almost at the speed of light.