Comment: from digital sceptics to true believers

Jonathan BrayAccelerating the adoption of industry 4.0 technology in the SME community is a major challenge for UK manufacturing. AMRC’s Jonathan Bray explains how the Digital Meet Manufacturing (DMM) campaign is addressing this.

The North of England could become a global player in the creation, adoption and export of advanced digital technologies if the government ramps up the Made Smarter programme and turbocharges a grass-roots digital technology adoption campaign launched by the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).

The Digital Meet Manufacturing (DMM) campaign is on a mission is to connect digital and manufacturing communities to accelerate the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies that will improve productivity and hasten the transition to a sustainable, low carbon economy based on high value-added jobs.

Our campaign is working across the entire manufacturing spectrum, from pioneering innovators to stubborn sceptics

Frontier firms have already taken large strides in their journey to digital transformation, adapting their production strategies to remain competitive and driving innovation by adopting new industrial digital technologies (IDTs) such as artificial intelligence and big data, augmented reality and virtual reality, additive manufacturing, advanced automation and the internet of things.

But what about the backbone of Britain’s manufacturing industry, the smaller manufacturers who share the same big productivity ambitions as their larger manufacturing counterparts but remain sceptical about taking their first steps on the path to digitalisation? Our campaign is working across the entire manufacturing spectrum, from pioneering innovators to stubborn sceptics, to address this.

So why do a large number of SMEs lag behind their bigger manufacturing counterparts when it comes to industrial digital technologies? Small businesses often recognise the benefits of automation and robotics but simply do not have the dedicated capability, capacity or finance to be able to carry out the research needed to determine how new technologies can help drive innovation and advance their productivity.

Finding the time and the people with the skills to investigate new technologies or process improvements within a live manufacturing environment is always a challenge regardless of the size of the business, as often the manufacturing engineers that need to cover many aspects of the processes are spent delivering to very tight production schedules.

The language of digital can also be a deterrent: talk of digital threads and digital twins, artificial intelligence and natural language processing can be difficult, if not impossible, to translate to the shop floor. One of the key aims of the DMM campaign is to bring tech and industry closer together so they can develop a common understanding and a common language that enables them to talk to one another.

Jonathan Bray
Some Industry 4.0 technologies can be applied to legacy equipment

Many of the most agile tech firms are also SMEs, so they share many of the same broader business challenges as the smaller manufacturers. Bringing the two communities together can be a powerful win-win solution to the digital adoption challenge, as it breaks down barriers and opens up opportunities.

Even when manufacturers do understand what the words mean, it can still be difficult for them to imagine what it might mean in practice, in the real world. That’s where the AMRC – and the other members of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult – comes into its own.

The language of digital can be a deterrent: talk of digital threads and digital twins, can be difficult to translate to the shop floor

At the AMRC’s Factory 2050 we have a demonstrator cell dedicated to SMEs who come to see for themselves how Industry 4.0 can be applied to a business of their size.  Within this SME cell there is a group working area we’ve called the ‘juicer’. This allows our experts to sit down with SMEs so innovative ideas and creative juices can begin to flow.

This friendly and risk-free space is the ideal environment for getting SME teams to talk about their production processes and business demands and to tap into the knowledge and expertise of the AMRC technical researchers to explore creative solutions to their challenges. These conversations are often the first steps in any digital journey: they enable people to not only think outside of the box, but even to forget that a box exists.

The AMRC, along with other High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult Centres, is able to assist manufacturers with this internal challenge as we have the skilled resource that can take an agnostic view of a manufacturing process and then identify the most appropriate technology. The benefits of this are that it de-risks the research and development and increases the technology readiness level to a stage that allows for implementation. The de-risking is even more important if the technology is seen to be disruptive to key operational processes and downtime is required as capacity is not just focused on human time but also the machine process time.

It is no secret that many SMEs do not currently have the finance to allow them to invest in new technologies without a solid business case. At the AMRC we’re able to help SMEs in two ways: either through developing a demonstrator to confirm the business is making the right decision for investment, or by collaborating with other regional agencies to search for and support funding bids for the adoption of industry 4.0 technologies.

Part of our mission is helping small firms fully understand the potential benefits to them of deploying industry 4.0 technologies; whether it be attaching sensors to legacy machines to monitor energy consumption, or using data analytics such as machine learning applied to images captured by vision systems to allow the identification of defective parts faster.

This digitalisation is an essential part of a business’s digital transformation. But new industrial digital technologies are seen to be disruptive, and acceptance of disruptive technology within the workforce can be harder than the implementation. It requires a culture of change.

That’s why it is vital that any business involves the end-users/operators as they understand the daily running of the machines; this is where the change process starts. But it needs to be viewed as a transition rather than abrupt change. Change can be fast and therefore rejected, but with transition, this is paced. Regular and small successes demonstrated to the shop floor means the benefits can be seen immediately thus easing the implementation of the long game.

The AMRC knows only too well how hard it can be to convert some SMEs to the gospel of digital industrialisation. That is why we built our SME demonstrator. It is our belief that this modest shrine to simple and easy-to-implement digital technologies will convince even the most stubborn sceptic that automation, robotics, data analytics and digital threads are things they should have faith in. We might even convert some of them into true believers who could spread the word far and wide. Now that would be transformative.

Jonathan Bray is deputy head of digital at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC)