Last week, educators, SMEs and representatives from local enterprise partnerships and manufacturing organisations, gathered at Autodesk’s Technology Centre in Birmingham for the official launch of the Digital Catalyst Programme, a new initiative aimed at plugging the skills gap and digitising the UK’s manufacturing industry.
TCT went along to the launch where Autodesk’s Senior Industry Manger, Asif Moghal, and Steve Cox, Digital Catalyst Programme Manager, were joined by a number of early Digital Catalyst participants who shared their success stories on implementing robotics, virtual reality and beyond, across various corners of UK industry.
The idea is to bridge the chasm between education and industry to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies. Open to any UK design or manufacturing SME, companies can apply for free to be linked with a student from a UK university, a so-called Digital Catalyst, who will come into their business under a work experience style programme. The business benefits from having a digital native apply their skills to help improve productivity, flexibility, innovation capacity, whatever their challenge may be, while the student gains real hands-on industry experience in an environment where they can potentially make a big impact, bulk up their CV and gain better recruitment prospects.
The programme is part of the Future of British Manufacturing initiative (or FOBMi for short), setup to help UK businesses identify and adopt technologies that will improve performance across five capabilities; collaboration, mass customisation, customer experience, PaaS (Platform as a Service), and flexible manufacturing. It is supported by a number of partners across banking, government and recruitment including Lloyds Bank, Innovate UK and the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The founders believe the initiative can get companies on their “digital journey” in just two weeks, while the digital catalyst programme will provide 80 hours of engagement to help suggest and implement new digital workflows.
It all sounds good in theory; students get valuable industry experience, SMEs get smarter, and UK manufacturing, in turn, becomes stronger. During the launch, there was a lot of enthusiam for the programme from both sides but there was also a niggling feeling, emphasised by a lively debate during the Q&A, that the benefits may be slightly skewed towards industry. Chiefly, there is no monetary compensation for students and while unpaid work experience is par for the course in most career tracks, if I were an engineering student, I’m not sure the idea of sharing my highly sought-after skills to help boost a business’s profitability would have me rushing to sign up. A sense of ‘pride in British manufacturing’, as one participant suggested, is great but doesn’t pay your bus fare, unfortunately.
On the other hand, many students graduate from university with no real industry experience to colour their CVs and, as a couple of participants vocalised during the event, some courses are not adequately preparing students for the working world. Moreover, the speakers were keen to stress that this won’t just be your typical tea-making and errand-running work experience, students will be immersed in real industry challenges so that they come out with a worthwhile addition to their portfolio and in some cases, a future job. We heard of one particular student who has already been offered the chance to start their own business with their partnered SME once they have completed their university studies.
Whether catalysts are the answer or not, the industry does need a shake up and Cox pointed to the recent revisit of the 2013 Perkins Review of Engineering Skills which looks at the progress made since the initial publication of the report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (since replaced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). Out of 21 recommendations made in the 2013 document, such as the development of elite vocational provision for adults and revisions to A-level physics to better align with degree-level engineering studies, less than a quarter are deemed to have made “significant progress” in the last five years. Evidently, things are not moving fast enough. We have a pressing need to upskill 96,300 engineers in the UK over the next 3-5 years in order to remain competitive and there have been a number of initiatives set up in recent years such as Made Smarter, which are aiming to tackle this skills gap and get SMEs thinking digitally. Whilst this programme still has some creases to iron out, it is a good starting point and there is already tangible evidence that for some, it has worked very well.
Like Umar Hossain, a PhD student at Imperial College investigating additive manufacturing, who helped CP Cases, a manufacturer of bespoke protective cases and racks for commercial and military applications, to digitise a process that took 180 minutes down to just 15 mins. Or Warren Services, a company which took on a digital catalyst to maximise the potential of a new piece of robotics hardware it had recently invested in and is now implementing successfully.
Moghal opened the day by suggesting UK businesses need to “embrace flexible manufacturing” but unlike larger manufacturers with big teams and resources, he recognised that SMEs often don’t have the luxury or even time to invest in digital technologies – choosing the right tech, training staff and integrating a new solution into an established process, is no easy undertaking. Last year, Autodesk published its “Enabling the Art of the Impossible” manifesto in which it reported that 62% of UK manufacturers plan to undertake some form of move to Industry 4.0 but only 23% were actively doing something about it. While digital technologies are considered an untapped resource for small businesses, there is an argument that SMEs, which count for 99.5% of the businesses in every main industry sector in the UK, are an equally underutilised resource for universities and students looking to hone their skills and gain real industry experience. Judging by the conversations that flowed during the day, it’s clear that both parties want to connect with each other, there just hasn’t been a straightforward way to make it happen. Perhaps this could be it.
“The time is now”, said Cox during his closing remarks and to ensure its success, FOBMi has set itself some “hairy goals”. It wants to target 50 Digital Catalysts, solve 50 SME digitisation problems, make 50 successful SME engagements, and create 50 meaningful student/employer engagements. For SMEs and organisations that want to find out more, applications are now open.