The journey to the smart factory

2 min read

What is the future of manufacturing in the UK? Andy Hirst heads up Mace's industrial, logistics and manufacturing portfolio in the North of England and Scotland. He explores how close we really are to the factory of the future - and the impact it could have on the Northern Powerhouse. 

We are constantly being told that smart factories, the internet of things and improved analytics are going to transform the manufacturing industry in the next few years. This is a bold statement, though clearly not without merit and substance.

Reduced waste materials, reduced product defects and the prevention of equipment failure and unplanned downtime are just some of the things that can be achieved through smart technology and are desirable for every manufacturer. The technology itself, that can provide the data to assist in this, is becoming more cost-effective all the time but we’re a far cry from it being “off the shelf”, standard componentery that is simply ‘de rigeur’.

Whilst initial investments can be relatively minor as companies run prototype projects, many manufacturers can be put-off by the potential level of investment when looking at their entire operation. It’s only when the results of these prototype projects are analysed that meaningful conversations will be had regarding expanding their implementation.

Many manufacturers will also need to look at their workforce and realise that in order to service a smart factory it needs to move away from a normal manufacturing workforce, and embrace the need for digital experts and analysts to use the data provided by the technology and transform it into something that is usable.

Data, after all, is useless in itself. Constant interrogation and analysis of the information provided is absolutely essential. Gone is the idea of looking at a spreadsheet on a weekly or monthly basis, as the real benefits are to be gained from making constant adjustments to the operation to maintain increased production levels and/or prevent equipment failures.

 The next generation of manufacturing employees are as likely to come armed with a laptop, as with a spanner, and the industry will need to invest and partner appropriately (with Universities and Colleges) in order to secure the best the market has to offer.

The more traditional manufacturing processes could also do worse than engaging with those in the advanced manufacturing sector in order that ideas can be shared.

This is where the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) can add real value in connecting those in the vanguard with those that are in the early stages of their journey. This journey needs to be undertaken without the old regional differences being allowed to get in the way, and so local authorities and combined authorities have a significant part to play in changing deeply-rooted mindsets.

We have so much to offer by coming together across the North and sharing what we know. Someone far cleverer than I once said that opportunities multiply as they are seized. This is a real opportunity for the North to take our hundreds of years of manufacturing knowledge and experience and combine it with the emerging technology, for which our region is becoming ever-more renowned, to create something exceptional.

One only has to look at the rate that such countries as Germany and Japan are embracing robotics and automation to realise that unless we get ourselves in gear we are, potentially, going to find ourselves languishing in the doldrums when it comes to productivity, and dealing with a lack of inward investment as capital is directed to more productive locations.

We can’t afford to look at automation and the smart factory as a threat to jobs and employment, but as an opportunity to reconfigure and upscale our workforce in order to improve productivity and our attractiveness as a place to invest. 

The region is increasingly looking at higher and further education courses specialising in high-end technology and is at the forefront of advanced manufacturing. We need to ride the wave of this and embrace all that it has to offer industry in the region to drive the Northern Powerhouse agenda.

Manufacturers in the North are a canny bunch, however, and will not part with their hard-earned profits just because everyone else is doing it. Clear proof of performance and productivity improvements will drive the acceptance of smart technology and automation.

Luckily, there is an increasing swell of good news on this front and an increase in SMEs in the North specialising in manufacturing data analytics, but we need to do more in publicising the real results of the investment in the smart factory ideal.

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