The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here - but is British industry ready?

Published 02/11/2017 by Gordon Wilson, Chief Executive Officer, Advanced

Adapt to new technology or perish, that was the overriding conclusion of this week’s government commissioned review on industrial digitalisation led by industry chief Jürgen Maier, the UK and Ireland boss of German engineering giant Siemens.

Maier, who was tasked by Theresa May with providing a long-term vision for the industry, said the proposals outlined in the review could see Britain’s manufacturing sector unlock £455bn over the next decade. How? By putting Britain 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.

The business secretary Greg Clark echoed the huge potential digitalisation offers manufacturing:

“The UK manufacturing sector has the potential to be a global leader in the industrial digital technology revolution. Government and industry must work together to seize the opportunities that exist in this sector and promote the benefits of adopting emerging digital technologies, as well as cutting edge business models.”

But while the review brings together the forward-thinking and innovative views and input from CEOs in over 200 firms and organisations, including Rolls-Royce, Accenture and Cambridge and Newcastle universities, is this indicative of the rest of businesses that make up the fabric of British industry? Are the leaders of these businesses of the same mind about the need to increase the speed of adoption of industrial digital technologies, the need to drive innovation of these same technologies? Underpinning this must also be strong and ambitious leadership to transform businesses and re-invest industries. Is the UK being held back by a history of chronic under-investment in innovation and skills, as claimed by some?

These are big challenges. Growth in new sectors and industries, combined with new technologies, will make many traditional roles and businesses processes redundant, and see a huge number of workers need to be retrained. To combat this, the review’s proposals include building a national digital ecosystem which would give engineering companies the chance to experiment with new technologies and see how they might be applied to a process in their own factories. Government support through tax incentives and funding, and the creation of a new national innovation programme would also facilitate the process of adopting new technologies and creating new companies.

The review also calls for a new national body, titled ‘Made Smarter UK Commission’, including representatives from industry, Government and academia, with the aim of “upskilling” one million British industrial workers.

But while these measures go some way to meeting these challenges, we are at a critical juncture in politics and business. Brexit, political instability, rising interest rates and inflation, threaten to derail how the UK plans for the long term. In a period of intense disruption, where technology and significant economic and political challenges are driving a pace of unprecedented change, innovation needs to happen more rapidly. We can’t afford to sit still.

To survive, we desperately need to have a long-term economic vision for the country, investing in those technologies that will create an industry ready to thrive. But Britain’s success in the digital era – dubbed the fourth industrial revolution - goes beyond simply investing in new technologies and techniques; it requires cultural shifts, new cutting-edge business models and the ability to adapt and innovate – with pace. But above all, it requires strong leadership that is willing to make tough decision and ensure businesses are robust and ready for the future.

This Monday sees the launch of our second annual Trends Report at the CBI Conference – one of the trends examines the state of readiness of our leaders in the digital era.  Our research uncovers whether business leaders are ready to embrace this opportunity…..

Whilst I strongly support the need for a forward-thinking UK technology vision, I also believe all British leaders have to get on board and get this moving. Every single organisation need to invest and innovate to create a digitally-led industrial Britain. Britain once led the world through its First Industrial Revolution which saw engines, coal and steam powered factories revolutionise the world's economic landscape. Now is the time to leap ahead and fully immerse the UK in a new digital era – and once again be at the forefront of another industrial revolution.

At Advanced, we’ve already undergone our own transformation to ensure we’re fit and ready – transforming our own business, investing in digital skills, and innovating in our technology and services. We will play an active part in informing Britain’s fourth industrial strategy, with our customers, to build a strong, sustainable Britain that is firing on all digital cylinders.