Throughout the discussion, the issue of skills was a recurring theme and, for Jeremy Hadall, this was the overriding factor in spreading the implementation of digital technologies
Integration is a challenge, he said, but “the bigger challenge is just the skills to do it, both in the end users – because a lot of these companies have never done it, they don’t have clue how to start – and secondly in the supply chain”.
GKN’s Paul Perera agreed that it is the number one issue and stressed that companies need to work together to address it. “We actually need to develop those skills ourselves and in conjunction with others because we’re all after the same people,” he said.
BAE Systems has invested heavily in ensuring that it has a pipeline of skilled people, Andy Wright said. “We have the new ASK – the academy for skills and knowledge centre. That’s £15.9m worth of investment, to be sure that we can develop the skills and capability within our people for the future. Training our apprentices and lifelong training of our staff to keep them current with technology.”
Dr Lina Huertas agreed that, while ensuring a future pipeline of talent is vital, training up existing staff is also important. “We need to look at upskilling because, if you want to have an impact in the next three years, we can’t wait until the youngsters have come through,” she said. Another key element, she added, is ensuring that leadership teams have the right skills to embrace change. “It’s also about leadership skills and introducing that disruptive spirit into leadership skills to find the people who are going to be the change makers in manufacturing and drive new technologies and a different way of doing things,” she said.
Picking up on the apprenticeship theme, Colin Sirett said that AMRC’s experience in this area is a neat illustration of how apprentices can help meet future factory skills requirements. The AMRC training centre – which was established in 2014 – has, he said, already established a pipeline of young engineers and technicians who are feeding fresh ideas into the region’s SMEs. “Thankfully, those SME companies don’t have an ego big enough that rejects it,” he said. “They’re taking that advice from a youngster. And it absolutely works.”
While industry clearly needs to get to grips with changing skills demands, Doug Wolff suggested that digital skills are not the barrier they once were. “I remember in school and through university, if I wanted to do put in an external system like a robot, I had to go to the lab to do it. Now, not only is the barrier to entry lower with the tools you’re able to get for free, but you can make very impressive things very quickly.” He added that industry needs to get used to viewing digital as a core competency rather than a separate discipline. “One of the things that frustrates me the most is that people see digital as its own thing, and think they need to go to computer science graduates in order to get our digital skills,” he said.
Expanding on this point, Sirett said that many of the young engineers he sees coming through are natural digitally oriented in a way that older engineers simply aren’t. “The lad that pulled together some of the first software that drives the smart bench was an intern,” he said. “We gave him an environment where he basically couldn’t wish for any more toys than he could lay his hands on. And he just went wild. And the outputs were phenomenal. Is there a skills gap? My view is that it’s softening. I don’t think it’s a skills gap. There are different skills in the same way you’d have different traditional skills that you’d buy into a company. We would probably go to a completely different demographic for a lot of the digital skills now.”