Technology and digitisation are transforming UK manufacturing

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From co-bots to automated processes to big data, technology is changing how UK makers operate. And manufacturers are eager to learn from experts and each other about what digitisation strategies work in practice. EEF’s Martin Strutt, Rockwell Automation’s Mark Bottomley and Oracle’s Vikram Singla recently sat down with EEF’s Be Business Ready podcast (in partnership with Oracle) to discuss what the UK’s Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) leaders are doing.

As Mark points out in the podcast, in the past year, most manufacturers realise that “the argument has been won” and 4IR is a reality they can’t ignore.

What’s new

Most manufacturers are familiar with how robots are used to improve productivity and free up staff to work on more skilled jobs. However, as a business growth and productivity consultant, Martin has visited manufacturers and seen some exciting new ways technologies are being used.

“I think two of the most promising technologies I’ve seen are co-bots and virtual reality,” Martin says. “Now robots are in the heart of the production line and doing work alongside people. It not only looks spectacular, but opens up a whole new world of opportunities.

“I’ve also seen some really clever use of virtual realities, particularly in the medical sector – taking scans of organs and putting them into virtual reality system so surgeons can see what they’re going to do before they operate.”


Customisation is expected

Today, customisation and improved customer service (informed by better data and a digitised process) is expected by today’s customer and manufacturing supply chain, Vikram says. He says, “Manufacturers need to provide services and experiences to increase their competitive differentiation and margins. While they may not achieve the ‘market segment of one’, you need to understand your customers on a much more granular level to deliver a more relevant customer experience, which 4IR technologies can help with in terms of getting that visibility.”


Analysing the data

For an automation supplier like Rockwell (which manufacturers its own automation sensors and PLCs), one of the most exciting opportunities for digitised manufacturers is the ability to better understand where productivity and service can be improved through analysing data from their technology and machines.

Mark says, “Manufacturers have always produced huge volumes of information – even more than Facebook, Instagram and other areas. The challenge is how they mine that data. Now we have software programmes that helps manufacturers combine data from all their machines in the cloud. Then they can look at a variety of factors, such as a speed counter or sensor on a machine or environmental factors from the building management system. That way they can see trends live, in real time, and delivered to their personal device to allow them to make better decisions.”  


Closing the gap

EEF’s recent Investment Monitor found that UK manufacturers are lagging behind other manufacturing powerhouses when it comes to robotics. Compared to Germany and Japan which have 300 robots for every 10,000 manufacturing workers, the UK has only 60.


To compete, particularly after Brexit, UK manufacturers will have to be looking for ways to be more competitive. With the cost of technology coming down (with co-bot costs now being about half of what they were previously), there has never been a better time to invest.  


How to get started

With all these technological breakthroughs, it can be tempting for manufacturers to select a few to add to their workplace. However, Martin advises a more strategic approach. Rather than focusing on the technology, manufacturers should ask, “How can we compete more effectively?” The technologies can then support that strategy.

Mark adds, “The manufacturers that are having success are implementing what they did previously, but doing it smartly. It starts with making sure each new purchase is moving the company towards being a more connected enterprise.”


Listen to our other Be Business Ready podcasts and browse 4IR resources for manufacturers here.


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