Manufacturing our future: Joining the dots

I was invited to give a talk recently at the 2019 Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit in Liverpool. This event brings together 300 senior representatives of manufacturing organisations (as part of the larger Smart Factory Expo that has over 6,000 attendees) to explore the latest developments in manufacturing technologies and management. My talk focused on three things that many others have also observed: Firstly, we are in the middle of a period of substantial political, economic and technological change. Secondly, UK manufacturing has the potential to create and capture new sources of value within this changing context, but this changing context needs to be better understood. Finally, this value won’t be captured unless we – as a manufacturing community from SMEs to multinationals, from academia to policymakers, from funders to researchers – are better at connecting, aligning and communicating our individual efforts.

The rest of this post is a rather wordy summary of what was covered in my slides (which are also available here) but if you are in a hurry just click here to jump to main conclusions from the talk. And if you'd like to read a much more elegantly written summary, see this article in The Manufacturer.

Part 1

I could have started by showing lots of vertigo-inducing charts and graphs showing various important indicators hurtling up or plummeting down, or screenshots of screamingly positive or negative headlines, or feel-good upbeat videos of the impact of digital on everything. Instead, as the audience were well aware of these issues, I just highlighted two points. Firstly, while many aspects of what we are experiencing now are ‘unprecedented’ (though I do quite like this Matt cartoon), UK manufacturing has over the past three centuries responded to numerous transitions, as very effectively summarised in books such as Joshua Freeman’s “Behemoth” and Carl Benedikt Frey’s “The Technology Trap”. Secondly, despite the commonalities with previous transitions, this time there are some key differences: things are happening faster, there is more going on, and there is more interconnectivity between things.

Part 2

I then moved on to look at the risks of this current change being neatly bundled up under the banners of the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’ or ‘I4.0’. Why is this a risk? Having a label for something is useful in that it provides a common frame of reference and allows the targeting of efforts. The downside is that this framing may be too simplistic. One consequence of this might be the implication that a relatively straightforward set of activities might solve problems that are far more nuanced: e.g. if manufacturing firms were all ‘a bit better at digital’ this would solve all productivity issues. Another consequence of imprecise labelling is that it can generate huge variations in predictions of impact as we haven’t really agreed what it is that we are talking about. Colleagues from the IfM’s Policy Links Unit highlighted this when they reviewed multiple reports on predictions of industrial digitalisation on jobs: the spread of viewpoints is huge, from significant to negligible, from positive to negative, over different timescales.

That said, it is clear that digitalisation is having and will continue to have significant impact on all aspects of manufacturing. But another problem is the complexity of issues that underly this broad domain. This one can be illustrated if we just consider one of the many technologies that are bundled under the broad heading of industrial digitalisation technologies: Additive Manufacturing (AM), often referred to as 3D Printing. At the highest level, Additive Manufacturing is a relatively simple and attractive technology: it allows physical objects to be built up layer-by-layer without the need for dedicated tools or moulds. AM offers numerous benefits for prototyping, tooling and final part manufacturing. For final part manufacturing, AM has the potential to enable mass personalisation and more localised production.  As soon as you start to dig down into the practical challenges of implementing AM, numerous barriers emerge (as summarised in the UK National Strategy for Additive Manufacturing). For example, AM is not a single technology but rather multiple ‘strands’ of technologies, each at different levels of maturity, each characterised by particular strengths and weaknesses. Different types of AM are suited to the different applications (prototyping, tooling, final parts) in different contexts. There are sector-specific requirements that may affect the suitability of different AM technologies in, e.g., aerospace, medical and food applications. The UK National Strategy for AM highlighted these, plus numerous other barriers – from skills to IP, design to finance – that needed to be addressed to enable to full potential of AM for UK to be realised. And that is just one industrial digitalisation technology: similar barriers exist for the adoption of blockchain, digital twins, machine learning, and all the other complex technologies that characterise I4.0.

The comments above imply a ‘technology-push’ approach, i.e. these technologies exist and the task is to push these into use. There are also the demand-side, ‘market-pull’ issues, and key amongst these are the challenges of demonstrating how digital technologies can address real, current business needs of improving productivity and enabling new opportunities for value capture. One way in which this is being address is through the sharing of examples of adoption by the broad programme of activities being brought together under the Made Smarter initiative and specifically the pilot activities being trialled in the North West of the UK. While case studies and examples can support understanding of the potential of these technologies and reduce perceived risks, underpinning adoption is basic problem faced by all firms: how to be ‘ambidextrous’ and manage the demands of the current business activities in parallel with doing – or trying to do ­– something new.

Perhaps the single biggest issue underpinning all the those described above is that of skills. If manufacturing organisations cannot access the skills they need – at all levels and functions, from technical to managerial – then UK manufacturing is going to struggle to remain internationally competitive and develop the resilience needed to cope with future challenges.  The issue of skills is a very complex one (and well discussed elsewhere), but three particular aspects are worth highlighting:

1.    What are the skills required? There are skills needed to develop the new technologies from R&D through the application (innovation skills) and skills needed for using new technologies in different contexts (adoption skills). Given the speed, complexity and scale of change, there are also the meta-skills of being able to operate in ever more open and connected environments.

2.    Who needs to have what skills?  An illustration of this can be seen in a comment heard in relation to data science and manufacturing: it’s not about how many data scientists will be needed by manufacturing industry; it’s about what data science knowledge is needed by whom, and how can it be accessed when needed.

3.    How do we develop the required skills? The idea that full-time, pre-employment education and training will provide the required technical skills for working life is outdated, and is clearly impossible to manage given the scale and speed of technological change. It requires a shifting from ‘what I know’, to ‘what can be accessed when needed’, and this requires a more holistic view of through-life learning and the diverse ways in which knowledge can be accessed, enabled by digital technologies such as VR and AR.

The summary of this second part of the talk was: there are connected issues relating to technologies, organisations and people that need to be addressed if we are to ensure that UK manufacturing remains competitive in the face of the current - and future – uncertainties.

Part 3

I began to realise that I had been rather optimistic in thinking how much I could get into a 15 minute talk (as the wonderful event organising team started to make various ‘time’s up’ throat-slitting gestures). I therefore tried to focus rapidly down on to some positive suggestions for what we, as a manufacturing community, could do to mitigate the risks and overcome the barriers to allow us to not only weather the current storms but also be well positioned to address future challenges. The key message of this final part was: there is lots of good stuff going on, but we need to be a bit smarter about joining things up and spotting gaps that need filling.

Why do we need to join the dots? Three reasons: firstly, many manufacturing organisations have limited awareness of initiatives that could help them due to the unrelenting demands of operating a manufacturing business in conditions of high uncertainty. A single data point to illustrate this: I was at a reasonably substantial food processing company recently who are facing huge employment challenges resulting, in part, from Brexit, As a result, they have been actively seeking to increase the level of automation and access all the support they can get .. but they had never heard of Made Smarter.

Secondly, many of the topics discussed above are being addressed but the links between them are not strong enough: for example, there are real challenges in making sure that those who support innovation are working with those responsible for skills development at a national level; that those working on regional industrial strategies are linked with those responsible for inward investment at a national level; that the experiences of developing solutions in one sector are shared across other sectors.

Thirdly, industrial digitalisation is not a standalone issue: it is strongly connected to wider economic, technical, political and social issues ranging from the UK’s position in global supply chains and the impact of trade wars, to changing attitudes to the free movement of people, to our position as a leader in scientific and educational excellence, to the implications of the UK enshrining in legislation the requirement for the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. These issues are interconnected and have many interdependencies.

So, what do we need to do? Well, naïve statements from people like me along the lines of ‘we just need to join everything up’ will not help much. But there a two things that could done:

1.    Increase engagement: the more we can get people in the same room talking about the issues above the better. Events such as the Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit, the UK Manufacturing Forum, and many similar events are helping to counter the ‘echo chambers’ of different communities meeting in isolation and raging against the stereotypes of the perceived shortcomings of ‘others’, be they ‘government’ or ‘universities’ or ‘the Catapults’, or ‘industry’.

2.    Mapping: if we can get better visibility of what is going on, how things are connected, the more chance we have of filling the gaps and targeting support for addressing new opportunities. This is a well-tested approach which, when enabled by the appropriate depth and breadth of engagement, can deliver real benefit.  Attempting to have ‘one map to rule them all’ is doomed to failure; but something that builds upon and integrates the existing layers of knowledge, from regional, sector and national strategies, to specific technology roadmaps, to maps of existing programmes of capability and support, and which is about visibility and enabling collaboration, is achievable. A key benefit of such a ‘living map’ of the UK manufacturing community would also allow us to more easily compare our ourselves to our international competitors and to reinforce our comparative advantages.

That’s how I ended that talk. And, to my surprise, I wasn’t hounded from the building but instead received some quite positive feedback.  As a result, I wrote this post and will pushing this message a bit further through my various linked to with the wider UK manufacturing community to see how this idea can be further developed. Any suggestions for how this could be done, or other feedback, would be very welcome.