by Victoria Montag, Sector Head for Industrial Automation, GAMBICA
I am often asked to comment on the fourth industrial revolution and whether the UK is behind the curve compared with other industrialised countries. From a policy point of view the answer is yes. Industry 4.0 was launched by the German government in 2011, and similar initiatives from other nations soon followed. The UK’s Made Smarter commission finally made its way into existence at the latter end of last year.
However, from an adoption point of view, the answer is not so straightforward.
The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is, as far as industrial revolutions go, notable not only because it was hailed as such almost before the fact, but also because it is the first revolution driven not by technology but by capability. Quantification of adoption is difficult – thus, measuring the UK against other nations is problematic.
I represent GAMBICA’s UK Industrial Automation Sector, and I spend a lot of my time talking about automation technologies. But when it comes to 4IR, most of our members will tell you that the technology has existed for a long time, and even the connectivity of these products to local and wide-area networks, but that it is the lowering of cost, increased capacity for storing data and greater processing power and speed that has allowed industrial transformation to happen.
Data has always been created by processes, machines, factories, offices and even people. It’s just that now we have the capability to do something useful with that data. Plugging condition-monitoring data into AI helps predict failures and measure energy usage to optimise processes, and data can allocate stock and human resource automatically. The potential is incredible. We haven’t even begun to realise what can be achieved. Taken to the extreme, one could imagine complete, integrated supply chains.
Complete, seamless, integrated supply chains: this is the crux of why discussing where the UK is on the 4IR curve is important.
As Sector Head for Industrial Automation, it may sound incredibly off-message for me to say that a company does not need to adopt new manufacturing technologies (it’s not even new – automation has been around since the 1960s). But it is true. If a company can find its place in the market for handmade or artisan products, then that’s great, but the products are likely to be expensive and niche. 4IR is being sold as important because it will improve efficiency, reduce waste and ultimately increase productivity and it will, but that is not what is truly revolutionary about it. The real revolution is that the way in which businesses operate and interact with their supply chain is going to fundamentally change. As the internet disrupted business processes in the late 1990s, the fourth industrial revolution now seeks to do the same with the (industrial) internet of things (IIoT). And just as businesses that did not adapt in the 1990s suffered, in some cases irreparably, businesses will need to adapt to this new wave.
The worry I have about the UK’s willingness to do just that is the perception that our manufacturing sector has been slow to adopt industrial automation. Again, quantifying how “automated” a country is is tough to do, but the Robot Index (which describes the number of industrial robots per 10,000 workers in manufacturing) is a useful metric to give a picture. The UK is consistently well below other developed nations.
This doesn’t bode well. As one GAMBICA member said to me, “Industry 4.0 hasn’t reached some factories yet – what is holding them back is that Industry 3.0 hasn’t been installed.”
I have hope though. The noise, confusion and chatter around 4IR has died down over the past couple of years, and the message is becoming clearer. And it may have taken the UK government time to get around to it, but with the Made Smarter initiative up and running there is a lot more promotion of the possibilities of 4IR, something that 3IR did not have the benefit of.
So, while there are always going to be challenges around companies adopting technology but also changing business models, I see the fourth industrial revolution as a fantastic opportunity for British businesses, and in particular, manufacturing businesses, to seize – and to perhaps even get ahead of the curve.
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