Industrial Digitisation, 4IR, Industry 4.0 all refer to the same reality. A collection of technologies that have the potential to improve productivity, reduce production cost and open up new revenue streams for manufacturing and engineering businesses.
On the 22nd March 2018, the Virtual Engineering Centre and Siemens welcomed a collection of senior figures from industry, research and the public sector to Sci-Tec Daresbury to discuss how Industrial Digitisation can provide value for manufacturing and what both the public and private sectors can do to overcome barriers to adoption.
The roundtable included participants from leading manufacturing business, Heap and Partners, Optima Control Solutions and the Boulting Group as well as the North West Business Leadership Team, the Manufacturers Alliance and the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation & Science.
The forum discussed the barriers to Industrial Digitisation, the importance of a coherent and practical proposition as well as the opportunities from the Industrial Strategy. The discussion exposed five key points:
1) Branding can be a barrier
Experienced directors and sector leaders are not recognising or wanting catchphrase. While all understand the potential value of using new technology the marketing push of Industry 4.0, 4IR and Industrial Digitisation was regarded as a distraction and even discourages engagement. A more desirable approach would be one like that taken by the VEC of focussing less on technology and more on a company’s challenges and ambitions. Presenting a considered technical solution starting with a low risk-proof of concept.
2) Delivery is more valuable than referral
A common frustration was the need to “look around” for support. Signposting and referral is time consuming and means multiple meetings and conversations. SMEs find engaging directly with a specialist who understood the industry and the technology more straightforward especially if that organisation is also delivering the support.
3) Money is not an issue
A surprising viewpoint was that financing of new technology and innovation was not a major barrier. The bank manager or VC is more easily convinced than the FD. Grants and loans from public project for capital investment are less valuable than qualitative proof of concept projects and demonstrations of technology within the businesses.
4) Answers & solutions, not products or technology
A recurring message was that the value is in the insight, expertise and credibility of the organisation delivering the support and this is more important than technology for technologies sake. Industrial Digitisation should follow the identification of an existing problem and offer a solution, not create an additional layer of complexity.
5) Agility, scale up, not start up
It was noted that “start-ups” have attracted a lot of focus and support. Innovative, new, high risk, high return business have been in vogue in both the media and public policy. However a greater share of jobs and GVA comes from more mature larger SMEs. These companies, frequently second or third generation family businesses turning over in excess of £10 million employ more people but also have the order books, clients, credit rating and infrastructure to see a return on investment sooner. While they are larger organisation, they still have the agility, drive and hunger for competition to be able to pivot with market changes and embrace new technologies fast.
The next five years:
The VEC leads the LCR 4.0 programme, which is paving the way for Liverpool City Region SMEs to adopt new technologies. Companies that have worked with the VEC have achieved reductions in production costs, improvement in efficiency and even diversification into new markets. The roundtable concluded with a discussion of what businesses thought was needed over the next five years to capitalise on the gains made to date.
The answer was a clear emphasis that while the public sector and HE institutions can provide direct access to support and expertise, this has to be paired with an ongoing dialogue to support a move to a more innovation-focused culture in business. The importance of leadership in manufacturing innovation from board level to shop floor can be supported through qualitative ongoing engagement and a willingness to tackle the challenge of changing culture and practices.