This past Monday afternoon was one of mixed emotions in the UK as Chancellor Phillip Hammond delivered his third budget, the last before Brexit, claiming that the era of austerity is coming to an end. But in a packed conference room at The Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, one particular part of the announcement was met by applause as the government promised investment of up to 121 million GBP for the Made Smarter programme.
The news came as representatives from manufacturing SMEs, industry and more reconvened at the MTC a year on from the launch of Made Smarter, a government-commissioned review on industrial digitalisation in the UK, to hear an update on how the project is progressing and how the UK is faring in the adoption of digitalisation. Led by Prof. Juergen Maier, Chief Executive at Siemens plc, the programme is set to support the transformation of manufacturing across sectors with digital technologies such as robotics, connectivity, artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing (AM).
Given the UK’s current political uncertainty, it might not seem like the best time to be optimistic about progress but speaking to TCT, Maier said the initiative has made some good headway in the last 12 months which he believes has been spurred on by this “complex setting” to just get stuck in and get on with it.
“There is a real coming together and I almost think that Brexit has sort of created a bit of a, ‘look we need to do something positive here’ and we really need to come together as the manufacturing and technology community to make sure that Britain stands strong whatever the outcome is. I think you will feel that in the room today as well, this really strong coming together of the British manufacturing community like I’ve probably never seen before in my 30 years of being in manufacturing in Britain.”
There certainly was an air of positivity in the room at the Digitalising Manufacturing Conference 2018. Rather than questions and concerns around automation ushering in an era of dark and lifeless manufacturing floors, the conversation was mainly about motivating change; how do we adopt digital? How do we tackle skills shortages? How can we collaborate?
When Made Smarter was first introduced last year, the report claimed that digital technologies have the potential to catapult the UK manufacturing economy to 455 billion GBP over the next decade. The initiative has now evolved from a paper to implementation including a commission which recently sat together for the first time and an adoption programme starting with a pilot for small businesses in the North West supported by 20 million GBP. Through speaking to SMEs, the commission has identified some common cross sector challenges and created demonstrators which show how digitalisation could help overcome them.
“What we’ve realised as we’ve been doing all of this work is actually, a lot of this is about the integration of quite a number of those [technologies] so it isn’t just about robotics, it might be robotics and how do you link that into some data analytics? Or it’s about additive manufacturing and how you link that into supply chains better?” Maier commented. “So, a lot of it is also about the horizontal between these technologies.”
Those keeping a close watch on the government’s interest in AM will recall the frustration the industry felt after last year’s Industrial Strategy name-checked the technology just once in its 250-page plan to boost UK productivity. When you look at the wider picture and the transferable benefits of other digital technologies like robotics and AI, it makes sense that AM would take somewhat of a backseat – most companies from retail to mechatronics could benefit from implementing AI in some way and do so fairly seamlessly. Additive manufacturing? It’s much more about finding the right applications. However, Maier pinpoints the technology as one of the key strands of Made Smarter, suggesting that the initiative will “absorb additive” within its strategy, not surprising when you consider Siemens has recently invested 27 million GBP in a new 3D printing facility in the UK.
Making people a priority
The event also invited a number of international speakers to share insights on how their organisations and governments are tackling digitalisation. The perspectives were diverse; on one hand we had the UK celebrating a big win from government to support SMEs in adopting digital technologies and on the other, we had Switzerland, built on small family-owned manufacturing SMEs who consider it their responsibility to innovate and invest in new technologies, not the government’s. However, there were some commonalities to be found in terms of promoting collaboration and adopting a people centric approach.
“Without people, technology won’t reach its full potential” said Christian Warden, Head of Skills Development at the MTC during a talk which addressed the need to upskill 96,300 engineers in the UK over the next 3-5 years. The heavily debated skills gap was cited as the most challenging area of digitalisation and to tackle that, speakers agreed that manufacturers have a responsibility to train people whilst the industry needs to rethink the types skills it values in an engineer to meet the demands of new roles and similarly, address the negative perception of a career in manufacturing.
“We’ve lived it at the MTC when we recruit people,” Dr. Lina Huertas, Chief Technologist – Technology Strategy at the MTC told TCT. “We never find digital engineers out there, we either find people who really know about manufacturing or people who come from computer science backgrounds and know quite a lot about maths or programming or artificial intelligence but they don’t understand the manufacturing world. So, what we’ve managed to do here is bring those two types of people, put them to work together and create digital engineers but you need both types of skills. There is a lot of potential to bring people from the outside into manufacturing and attract them into digital manufacturing.”
Closing the day, Maier said he is “very optimistic that we have a great future.” With this latest injection of investment into Made Smarter, the necessary tools are gradually being put in place to ensure the UK grasps the opportunities that these technologies afford in order to compete on a global scale. One thing is for sure, people, not just tech, will be critical to its success.