Smaller companies face financial, cultural and skills issues when it comes to embracing digital manufacturing and The Engineer’s panellists agreed that employing technology champions who can articulate its benefits is vital
One recurring issue with UK industry is that SMEs which make up the bulk of the sector tend to be slower in introducing new technologies than larger companies, even though they tend to be the suppliers on whom the large companies depend. This is certainly an issue with digital technologies, with, for example, robots being far more prevalent at the top end of the industry.
“You see the top one or two per cent of companies are absolutely all over this,” noted the MTC’s Jeremy Hadall. “They understand digital, they understand what it’s going to do for them and their supply chain and they’re fully on board and very supportive. But you start going down – across multiple sectors – and it just disappears.”
The problem, he surmised, is partly one of inertia: companies don’t have the time, they trust the technologies that they have used for some time, and are put off by the cost. “They can’t see the route to investment,” he said. “They can’t make the business case. It’s a cultural issue, a financial issue, a skills issue.”
One way this culture could be changed, said some panellists, is for companies to ensure they’re employing technology champions, people who have the understanding and skills to articulate the benefits of technology to their colleagues. “If you don’t have champions inside an organisation that can take technology and drive it, then it’s not going to work,” said Dr Lina Huertas.
Major projects that engage the supply chain can also be an important way for tier one organisations to spread the word about the potential of new technologies, Paul Perera said. “We need to give them the opportunities and the projects to work on, and I think BAE Systems has got an opportunity with Tempest to get that supply chain engaged in a very different way so I’m really looking forward to that collaboration,” he said.
Digital technologies also bring an opportunity to change the business model, a situation that the MTC has seen in its clients. “We have an SME in the South East – they do general manufacturing for bespoke parts, but they’ve completely changed their business model,” said Huertas. “They’re bringing people they’ve found from various central Jobcentres to give work experiences to the long-term unemployed, they’ve developed apprentices, they’ve developed people inside, and they have enormous amounts of talent. They are willing to take risks in terms of how they develop their internal systems.”
One way this has manifested is in a new procurement system. “At some point they said, ‘well you guys are going to create your new system yourselves’,” she said. “They created the code, and now they develop software for the company. They kept the whole talent well-progressing in technology.”
Can SMEs overcome the problem of cost?
A major barrier to adoption is the perceived high cost of investing in digital, said our panel. “The biggest problem with any of these advanced systems is money,” claimed Craig Turnbull, the lone SME voice on the panel. He added that the main argument often given for investing – that it will lead to payback in the future – often doesn’t resonate with many. “I don’t feel this is true for an SME,” he said. “I don’t feel investing millions and millions of dollars in a piece of equipment, because one of the large primes thinks it’s a good idea, is going to take me on a jet.”
Dr Lina Huertas agreed that this is a concern, but said that cost is beginning to come down as business models change. “We work for SMEs that are now using certain types of technologies that they couldn’t use before because the business model of that technology provider has changed so they can now afford it,” she said. “They pay for it for the week that they need to develop their product.”
According to Paul Perera, GKN’s work with Epic Games is a good illustration of how digital platforms don’t have to cost the earth. “New platforms are available to us to pick off the shelf,” he said. “In fact, to start with, most of our development was done for free, then we ended up buying a couple of licences and we’re now building our complete capability set for our skills and development of our teams around digital manufacturing.”
Taking this a step further, Colin Sirett said the best way to remove the cost barrier is to make the technology free and accessible, rather like a mobile phone app. “Whatever system we end up with in the future, it’s got to be almost agnostic to the technology; it’s got to be a real ‘Android’ solution,” he said. “As soon as we start putting barriers up, that’s then going to prohibit the deployment and exploitation of the capability. The challenge for us and the challenge for the assistance providers is that the app has to be free. That’s why we’ve got to get our minds around that the future industrial supply chain is digitised and enabled by free commercial products.”
As a supplier, Siemens’ Simon Keogh was understandably lukewarm on the prospect of free digital tools, but agreed with Huertas that the emergence of new business models is helping to open up technologies to a wider user base. “There are certainly new business models that are enabled by digital technology and we’re seeing that now in things like licensing and software solutions. We’re also seeing that within the supply chain itself, and the way in which OEMs, for instance, that are supplying specific machinery, are now actually not there to sell those machines but they’re there to lease them at least on a pay-per-pack or pay-per- production of a single unit.”