While awareness and deployment of digital technologies is growing across the industry, our panel agreed that there’s a long way to go. And, although many of industry’s big hitters are enthusiastic converts, they say that driving uptake further down the supply chain is a key challenge
“Unless we start embracing the rest of that learning with the supply chain, it doesn’t go far enough to have an impact,” said GKN’s Paul Perera, adding that firms such as his have a role to play as technology evangelists. “We have amazing capabilities at GKN. But nobody knows what we do. We’ve got hidden capability sitting in the UK that could be a case study for others to use. I think the onus is on us to educate.”
ABB’s Mike Wilson – someone on the frontline of encouraging the uptake of advanced manufacturing technologies – believes that this is easier said than done. “We do have some very strong industry sectors in the UK and they are certainly developing digital capability and industry 4.0,” he said, “but if you look at the vast majority of UK manufacturing, it hasn’t even done ‘Industry 3’ yet. The challenge is, how do we get them up the scale?”
Wilson added that he believes the culture of UK industry needs to change from one where manufacturers are “proud of keeping old machines running” to one more like Germany where “they’re proud that they bought new ones”.
AMRC chief executive Colin Sirett agreed that the UK was lagging behind in terms of robot adoption, but pointed to a growing trust in digital techniques: “We always used to have a standing joke in Airbus that you knew when an aircraft was ready to fly when the amount of paperwork weighed more than the aircraft. We’re kind of getting away from that now and we’re seeing that acceptance of, ‘Yes, we can trust digital in this environment’.”
“I think the onus is on us to educate”
– Paul Perera
Panellists praised the role government has played here. Describing the industrial strategy as “a breath of fresh air”, Sirett pointed to Catapult Centres as a rare example of a government initiative with legs. “Ten years for an initiative out of government is almost unheard of,” he remarked. Perera was similarly enthusiastic, hailing government’s involvement in the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI). “We think it’s the most rich environment the UK has ever had to develop the technologies that we’re talking about,” he said.
These comments were echoed by BAE’s Andy Wright, who commended “the foresight within government” and said that a focus on tapping into the UK’s university sector coupled with the work of groups like the catapults, was helping the UK to develop and extract value from technology far more rapidly than in the past.
Epic Games’ Doug Wolff – who is helping manufacturers, including GKN, exploit gaming technology – said the biggest impact of digital technology on manufacturing was yet to be felt. “Manufacturing has been isolated a little bit from disruption,” he said. “[It is] a little bit insulated because you have to eventually make a thing. You can’t just do it digitally from your bedroom and become a worldwide supplier like you can for software. But with emergence of manufacturing technologies that are becoming more disruptable, the model has the chance to be very greatly shaken up in the same way that pure digital industries have been.