Despite some bumps in the road, there is cause for optimism for UK manufacturers looking to embrace the 4th Industrial Revolution.
This was my key takeaway during an enlightening talk from EEF’s Chief Economist Lee Hopley at this year’s Fujitsu World Tour in London.
For this blog I wanted to replay some of her points which really stuck with me.
Understanding the current context in manufacturing
In the last 18 months, manufacturing has bucked the trend for the wider UK economy. However, there are signs that this is set to change, and manufacturers selling into consumer facing sectors in particular could feel exposed.
The world is going through a period of great change, turmoil and uncertainty. Businesses are trying to assess the impact of Brexit (and decipher what Brexit will actually look like), as well as getting to grips with changes in trade policy from the United States.
In the UK, consumers have started to feel the effect of a rise of inflation, meaning they are less likely to splash the cash on major purchases. This too has sounded caution around investment.
Manufacturers have identified Brexit related risks as the main cause for concern in 2018, according to an EEF survey.
Swings in exchange rates, increases in input costs and access to skills can all have a big impact on the sector.
But the survey also revealed it’s not just about the “B-word”. High profile cyber-attacks in other industries have made manufacturers sit up and take notice, putting security on the radar.
Getting to the bottom of the UK’s productivity puzzle
Looking further forward, Lee argued that productivity is a long-term challenge which needs to be addressed in the UK.
She said the manufacturing sector is going through a lot of change. And complicating it all is the fact that a lot of people don’t understand that change.
In terms of productivity the UK was on a par with Germany in 2009, but things have gone astray in the last 10 years.
Lee suggested that the industry is the master of its own problems – meaning that it will solve its own difficulties – pointing to an EEF survey which found more innovative use of technology was desired by manufacturers.
Could the 4th Industrial Revolution offer an answer?
Embracing the 4th Industrial Revolution creates an opportunity for manufacturing to do things differently, helping it become more efficient and competitive.
“Despite uncertainties we have to keep our eyes on the prize,” said Lee.
This revolution offers up a host of innovations which could make that possible, one example of which was on show at Fujitsu World Tour.
In the demo zone, guests saw an Industry 4.0 robot running Iota Tangle, a distributed ledger which is faster and cheaper than blockchain, with the demo showing a future production line process.
The ledger creates an audit trail as a product goes through the process, unique to the item being produced. It means each item created can be tracked and any faults flagged.
If a step in the process isn’t complete, the robot can then send the item to the step it needs. This exciting proof of concept could hit the market as early as the end of the year.
Optimistic outlook if we embrace technology
Lee pointed out that digital infrastructure will be a big challenge if the UK is to fully benefit from the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Getting this right would give the country the bandwidth to process and share the huge quantities of data that the revolution will inevitably bring, as more and more devices are connected to the internet.
The talk finished on a positive note. Manufacturing “has got the smarts to get through short term bumps,” Lee said. While there is a need to solve temporary challenges, manufacturers mustn’t lose sight of the long-term future.
The UK business environment has to be more than Brexit – and should drive investment in technologies to maintain the country’s position as a leader and early adopter.
“Manufacturing always demonstrates resilience,” said Lee. “It has got to try and be optimistic in uncertain times.”