People, not machines, will drive 21st Century innovation

Whilst smart machinery may outperform humans on many levels, concerns that robots will put us all out of work are unfounded writes Olly Dmitriev, CEO of Vert Rotors.

Smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0 is redefining manufacturing but it is the people behind the technology who will create innovations in the 21st century, not machines. It is the power of creating future innovative products, not robots that will write a new chapter in the history of British manufacturing. We have come a long way since the first industrial revolution, when mechanical looms were the height of new technology and the factory system began to emerge. As we enter what is widely acknowledged as the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, the impact on our sector and the wider economy will be exponential.

Auf dem Weg zu Industrie 4.0: Vollautomatische Türenmontage am Siemens-Stand in Hannover
The rise of industry 4.0 is set to transform manufacturing (Pic: Siemens)

Currently, there is a lot of debate about smart manufacturing. The in the US, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST, part of the Deparment of Commerce) defines smart manufacturing as systems that are “fully-integrated, collaborative manufacturing systems that respond in real time to meet changing demands and conditions in the factory, in the supply network, and in customer needs.”

Smart manufacturing will benefit our industry tremendously, but only if we engage our current workforce, encouraging our employees to adopt these new technologies

The advances in machinery and robotics allow us to replicate existing manufacturing methods with increasing effect. Inefficiencies are often solved with robots and mass customisation, a technique that combines the flexibility and personalisation of custom-made products with the low unit costs associated with mass production, or by changing manufacturing programs automatically.

Smart machinery is seen to outperform human capabilities on many levels. It is faster, more efficient, and can operate non-stop. With the application of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, the analysis of big data can be incorporated into the process, allowing manufacturers to quickly resolve potential issues and inefficiencies.

Naturally, there is concern about the possibility of the rise of automation technology putting people out of work. I believe this is unfounded, particularly in the UK where our strength lies in innovation, rather than mass production. Smart manufacturing will benefit our industry tremendously, but only if we engage our current workforce, encouraging our employees to adopt these new technologies. Certainly, some manufacturing jobs will change significantly but smart manufacturing must begin with people, not machines.

Robots do not create new jobs directly. Although they displace some jobs, they improve overall business competitiveness and allow businesses to expand and create new sustainable roles in post-sales support, sales and marketing etc.

Robots are able to effectively execute a known algorithm but innovative ideas and products are borne by the human intellect

Despite the automation of many of our processes and systems, manufacturing is a creative and innovative industry. Robots are able to effectively execute a known algorithm but innovative ideas and products are borne by the human intellect.

I came to Scotland in 2012 to start my own manufacturing company, Vert Rotors, and develop a line of groundbreaking new air compressors. As a small manufacturer, I knew I could level the playing field by fostering smart manufacturing skill sets within my workforce, rather than attempting to replace the workforce with smart technology.

I started to build my team drawing on the pool of highly skilled engineers coming from Scotland’s oil and gas industry. Some employees have over 30 years of experience in this field, and I value the contribution they have made to the industry.

To bring my compressor design to fruition and make it as efficient as possible, our measurements had to be accurate to the level of microns. While developing our compressor, we were unable to source the parts externally, so we decided to engineer everything ourselves in-house. I worked hard to bring state-of-the-art technology to our Edinburgh workshop, installing the most precise kind of milling machinery to be brought to the UK – the DMG Mori HSC-20.

The small firm is now home to one of the most precise milling machines ever brought to the UK

This technology was new to all of us. One of my engineers commented we were using geometry he had never even seen before but by working together with the machinery, coupled with up-to-date Computer Aided Design (CAD) technology, we created something remarkable.

Intuitively I realised the potential of combining years of experience with new, smart manufacturing technologies. To unleash the full potential of smart manufacturing technologies, we must first develop the skills and vision needed, that only humans could provide.

Understanding the skill-set of your employees will impact any decision made to implement new smart machinery onto the factory floor. It is vital we nurture the incredible potential of our workforce by allowing them to up-skill and develop a symbiotic relationship with the new smart tools we have at our disposal.

In the UK, mass-manufacturing is not the only way to add value. Developing new algorithms, new ideas and new manufacturing methods will lead to more innovation. There is a long history of innovation and creativity in the UK, but it is the brains behind the machinery that drives forward innovation.

Olly Dmitriev is CEO of Vert Rotors, which designs and manufactures what it claims is the world’s most compact high pressure, low-vibration screw compressor.