Investment in digital manufacturing is essential in post-Brexit economy

Michael Sorkin, managing director of Formlabs, Europe

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Start-ups can thrive if they embrace digital manufacturing to create products that are better tailored to the people who will be using them, says Michael Sorkin of Formlabs.

Manufacturers across the UK have been tasked with becoming the engine room of the post-Brexit economy. In June, after the General election, the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) asked the government to build a “new industrial future.”

It’s an important concern for the manufacturing sector. The weak pound has helped the industry achieve its biggest growth in three years as of April, but long-term development remains a concern, with continued uncertainty across the political and economic spectrum.

Many in the manufacturing sector see digital manufacturing as key to their future, but with so much ambiguity and without policy stability, firms are reluctant to invest the significant sums required to make what some call “Industry 4.0” a reality.

If the UK does not make these investments, it is hard to see how the country will compete in Europe and further afield. The German manufacturing industry, for example, is already 2.7 times larger than that of the UK and invests 6.6 times more in automation. This is a key driver of high productivity in Germany.

However, Brexit means that rather than investing in UK plants, many larger manufacturing companies are likely to scale back their presence in the UK. Some sources estimate that a third of the manufacturers currently in the UK will leave the country altogether.

Formlabs 3D printed parts
Formlabs’ 3D printed parts

The government seems to be hoping that small and medium enterprises will make up for this loss. In January, prime minister Theresa May announced a new industrial strategy, much of which focused on providing a framework for entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises to succeed. These small and medium enterprises that will need to lead the UK’s transition to Industry 4.0, continuing a long tradition of small scale, high value British manufacturing embodied by iconic companies like Brooks, Raleigh, McLaren, Aston Martin, and Rolls Royce.

Fortunately, the leap into digital manufacturing is more accessible than ever before. In fact, the next generation of hardware startups may never know any other way of bringing products to market.

While traditional manufacturers focused on scale, with good reason, Moore’s law now applies to manufacturing technology as it applied to semiconductors. In the same way that personal computers have replaced mainframes, the advanced manufacturing technologies necessary for high value manufacturing are being miniaturised and made much more accessible. While this is true for both additive and subtractive technologies, nowhere is it more relevant than in the world of 3D printing.

3D printed chess pieces
3D printed chess pieces

What this means is that a small enterprise, focused on the British market, can now reasonably afford the same technology used by much larger players. Still, it will be hard for small British manufacturers to create value if they simply offer the same products being mass-produced the world over.

At the same time, we have reached an inflection point: mass customisation is poised to become a reality. Additive (and CNC) methods suited for both prototyping and production mean the first unit costs the same as the last. The advent of smart, affordable automation means that cost per part is falling to the point where custom consumer goods can be produced at a reasonable price. If Brexit drives the price of imported items higher, mass-custom counterparts produced in the UK would look increasingly attractive.

Despite a climate of uncertainty, the current economic landscape presents a real opportunity for small and medium manufacturing startups in the UK to thrive by embracing digital manufacturing to create products that are better tailored to the people who will be using them, closer to where they will be used.

Michael Sorkin is the general manager of Formlabs in Europe