Panel session report: demystifying digital engineering

During a recent online panel session experts from across industry explored some of the practical challenges of digitalisation. Jon Excell reports.

We’ve all heard about the promise of Digital Engineering: how it will revolutionise every area of industry, making it more productive, more sustainable, and more responsive to customers’ and users’ requirements

And yet it can be a bewildering concept for many engineering companies: a jargon rich, offputtingly complex topic that’s often incorrectly seen as the sole preserve of large OEMs with deep pockets.

Earlier this year, in an effort to cut through the jargon and explode some digital myths, The Engineer - in partnership with the Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI) initiative - brought together a panel of OEMs, SMEs and digital engineering specialists to gather their insights on the practicalities of digital transformation.

The following report examines some of the key topics explored during this discussion.

Meet the panel

Derisking digital

Opening the session, National Composites Centre digital director Marc Funnell set the scene by introducing and outlining the aims of the DETI initiative, a two-year programme aimed at helping companies identify and develop the tools, technologies and processes they need to rapidly accelerate digital engineering capabilities (see boxout).

Digital engineering technology is key to solving and addressing many of the challenges manufacturers face today said Funnell: from the pressures and opportunities presented by the push for net zero, to the insatiable demand for lower costs and increased productivity.

Whilst the good news is that much of the technology required to solve these problems already exists, the challenge - he said - is knowing where to begin “We have so much technology, no one knows where to start in the first place”.

This is where DETI comes in which, he explained, is aimed at de-risking digital transformation by providing companies with real, industrial scale test beds where they can tap into existing expertise and facilities, collaborate on proof of concept projects that will address the barriers to digital transformation and gain understanding of exactly how digital technologies can support them. “They’re available to you so you can come and learn what it takes to set something up and exploit it to provide value and transform your own businesses in a risk-free environment,” he told delegates.

DETI drill down

Expanding further on the programme - Ian Risk, CEO of DETI partner CFMS - explained how it has been structured to help manufacturers understand and explore five areas that are key to digital engineering: computational power, underpinning digital tools, data, visualisation and finally the digital thread, a single source of digital truth about any products as it goes through its lifecycle, which he describes as “the utopia for engineers”.

With many of these key building blocks in place, DETI is now beginning to work with organisations to help the understand these key areas of capability, he explained.

One example is its work with UK satellite SME Kispe, which wanted to explore whether digital engineering tools could create opportunities for it to move into the structural engineering side of satellite engineering. Risk explained that DETI helped the firm understand how digital tools could be used to automatically reconfigure and optimise the structure of a satellite according to the desired payload. This exercise was, he said, a good example of how DETI is working with companies to help them “understand the art of the possible.”

Wrapping up, Risk offered two key observations on the challenges of digitalisation. Firstly, he said, companies shouldn’t expect things to happen quickly. It can take time and effort to persuade your wider organisation that digitalisation is the way to go.  “Challenges around data and security mean that there are a lot of hurdles you have to go through internally just to convince people that it’s ok,”

he said.

The other key point - and one that cropped up throughout the discussion - is the importance of understanding exactly what skills your business is likely to require. “A really vital element is understanding where these skills gaps are,” he said, “if we are going to adopt this capability en-masse as an industry we’re going to need a lot more people.”

An SME perspective

If digitalisation is truly to reshape the UK’s manufacturing landscape it’s vital that SMEs are on board, and our next panellist - Atec Solutions’ Andrea Hough - offered some valuable insights on how smaller organisations can take their first steps.

With its growth and productivity hampered by ageing and disparate IT Systems, the Salford based firm (which designs and manufactures components for the aerospace, defence and energy sectors) turned to the government’s Made Smarter Initiative for assistance shaping a digital strategy that’s helped boost productivity and unlock growth opportunities

Atec’s digital journey began from a position that will be all-too-familiar to many in UK industry. “I was like many owner SME businesses that didn’t’ really understand what industry 4.0 was,” she explained. “We only have 42 people working for us, we’ve been around for a very long time, our average workforce age is mid 50s – we were one of those very typical small manufacturers.”

The first stage of the transformation, she explained, was mapping out the disparate IT systems that were being used to run the company, many of which had evolved piece-meal over the years. “When we mapped it out it was horrendous, and it explained why sometimes decision making was so difficult. Because information was coming from so many different places,” she said.

Hough explained that this process helped the company understand the importance of both data and system integration and - with the help of an external consultant - it was able to quickly improve the way that data was handled across the business, increasing the number of jobs completed on time from 50 to 80 percent, and reducing the amount of paper used by more than 90 per cent.

The process has also instilled a new found company-wide enthusiasm for technology, added Hough. “We have gone from being a company that didn’t really embrace new technology at all to one that’s always on the lookout for technology solutions.” This has been amplified by the pandemic, which has seen the firm introduce innovations such as two-metre wearable buzzers to enforce social distancing and  head cameras that boost collaboration by enabling socially distanced workers to enjoy a shared view.

Beyond her own organisation Hough said she sees encouraging signs of digital enthusiasm throughout the SME community with many businesses now making use of things like electronic dashboards to help optimise their shop floor processes.  “We’re seeing a much bigger spread of people wanting to work in the made smarter program and move their businesses forward,” she said.

A perspective from Siemens

Our next panellist, Siemens’ Brian Holliday, joined us from a company that has been at the forefront of the digital debate for many years, and which - as both a supplier and manufacturer - has experience of driving digitalisation both throughout its customer base and within its own operations.

Holliday echoed Andrea Hough’s assessment that industry’s appetite for digitalisation is growing, adding that whilst the jargon associated with Industry 4.0 can be off-putting for some, organisations at most levels of industry increasingly appear to understand the value of digitalisation. “We’re all caught by this idea that there is a productivity leap that’s possible if we are to embrace and adopt digital technology and have the skills to use it properly,” he said.

The challenge, he said, is knowing where to begin. “You don’t start with every digital tool connected in your factory but you have to start somewhere if you’re going to embrace this idea of greater productivity.”

To illustrate how it can be done Holliday turned to Siemens’ celebrated variable drives factory in Congleton, Cheshire and explained how digitalisation has been key to enabling the facility to transition from supplying a standard stocked product to 17,000 variations that can be manufactured next day. “We’re able to respond to the customer with a product that’s been built with an agile development process in a factory that’s set up for the future,” he said.

Holliday added that the lessons learned through the Congleton project have since been applied to a number of other settings including, perhaps most notably, the Ventilator Challenge project, for which Siemens was a key partner.

This mass UK scale-up of life-saving COVID ventilators – which took place in the late spring of 2020 – saw ventilator production scaled up from 50 units per month to around 1000 units a week in just three weeks.  “That could only have been achieved with the digital tools we used to simulate the art of the possible,” said Holliday.

A consultancy view

Some sectors are more resistant to change than others. And construction - with its wide and deep supply chains - has always been particularly challenging in this regard. Our final panellist, Atkins’ Global Head of Design Transformation, Lesley Waud, offered insights into some of the ways in which she has helped drive digitalisation within Atkins and beyond.

For Waud, one of the key issues is supporting the people in the business: both new entrants and also the existing workforce.  “We’ve got an awful lot of people who joined the industry when it wasn’t digital,” she said. “Some of those are willing to get on board, but some are frightened by what it means. What’s really important to us is the psychological safety aspect: how do we create an environment where people can voice their concerns? We don’t want to lose people we want to take them on the journey.”

This process begins with the leadership and Waud has been leading the rollout of courses aimed at helping leaders across the business understand how to embrace the opportunities and challenges presented by the digital world. “The value of data and the insights it could give us if we tap into that across our portfolios globally could be immense so we need people who previously had autonomy to run their own businesses to come on board with a bigger picture objective.”

Away from the people, another key challenge for Waud is looking at the processes that businesses use, and trying to make the most of the opportunities digitalisation creates to do things in a fundamentally different way. “There’s a real risk that we’ll digitise the way we work today rather than looking for a different way of working,” she said. “If we were starting tomorrow….and we didn’t have any constraints or baggage around how this industry is operated, what would our ideal world look like? That’s a real challenge.”

About DETI

Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI) is a strategic programme of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), delivered by the National Composites Centre, in partnership with the Centre for Modelling & Simulation, Digital Catapult, the University of the West of England, the University of Bristol, and the University of Bath. Industry partners include Airbus, GKN Aerospace, Rolls-Royce, and CFMS, with in kind contributions from UWE, Digital Catapult and Siemens. DETI is funded by £5m from WECA, with co-investment from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and industry.

More information: