Making the future: why manufacturers must embrace the digital revolution

 

Professor Ken Young, Technology Director at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), explains how technology advancement is the platform to give British industry a leading edge on the world stage.

Ken YoungManufacturing is like Formula 1 racing – those who push the boundaries of what’s possible with their machines are the ones who win. It’s about getting better control of processes and constantly refining them to get nearer that upper limit. That’s what British manufacturing has to do to see off competitors.

We have a great, historic reputation as manufacturers but we need to complement traditional strength and values with a progressive outlook. The global marketplace opens doors – but also demands that we keep ahead of the pack long-term. It’s not good enough just to match our global peers – we must excel. Technical innovation enables us to do that.

Test your limits

At the MTC we provide access to high tech equipment and expert knowledge to facilitate and encourage innovation. Members can explore technology options, test run new processes and make smart, confident decisions about their strategic direction, including substantial equipment and IT investments.

Hardware and software are highly integrated in modern industry, so we’re increasingly assisting businesses with the IT side. There are a lot of risks involved in implementing large solutions of this type – your whole production line can grind to a halt if you get the IT wrong. Innovators need to be informed enough to effectively balance risk against opportunity and make the right strategic choices.

The digital push

The latest digital and software developments can help manufacturers across a range of industries gain a leading edge. The first key development is in computer modelling and simulation of manufacturing processes, allowing you to understand a process fully, and play around with variables to find optimal performance.

The second is in capturing data from the real process and feeding this back into the simulation. These days, most new machines have connectivity – you can drag data out of them to feed back into the process model to gain an even better understanding. That’s the type of continuous improvement loop that gives you the edge over the competition. Manufacturers need to make the most of the availability of this kind of data. It’s not enough to have it – you have to apply it, draw value from it.

The risk of complacency

The pace of change in most industries is now so high that the bar is constantly being raised. The risk to manufacturers who fail to embrace the digital age is quite simple. They won’t be able to keep up. They’ll be stuck in the mid-zone rather than exploring the limits of what’s achievable. You have to be globally competitive in order to survive. Taking advantage of the latest developments in manufacturing technology can give you that leading edge by ensuring you not only have a world-class product, but a manufacturing process that’s completely optimised, with the cost and resource efficiency that delivers.

Use technology to attract new talent

The skills shortage is a significant challenge, consistently reported across a range of UK manufacturing sectors. The upshot is that many manufacturers are replacing people with automated processes. An alternative would be to take their manual process abroad, but many high tech manufacturers prefer not to – they like to keep close control.

Highly automated, digitised processes actually require an even higher calibre of skilled worker. You’re looking for people who not only do the job, but improve it as they go. Working in manufacturing no longer means doing the same thing on a production line, day in and day out – that is an antiquated picture. Businesses can do much to attract bright, talented young people by conveying the challenge and excitement of the Formula 1 race that is manufacturing in the digital age.

Technology in action

At the MTC, we recently worked with a major blue-chip manufacturer to develop manufacturing processes for its new factory in Rotherham. They had healthy production targets, but couldn’t get enough sufficiently skilled people to run the manual process, and sought a technology solution.

Essentially, we took what was a manual process on the production line and fully automated it. We not only helped them with the automation hardware, but also explored the IT solutions.

The benefits are clear. They have gone from a yield of about 80% from that process on a good day, into the upper 90s. With high value products, the impact is immense. And what’s more, they now have a scalable solution. Demand for their product is high – they now have the means to meet it.

About the author

Professor Ken Young is Technology Director at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, which provides a high-quality environment for the development of cutting-edge technologies into manufacturing processes with the aim of delivering truly innovative solutions to UK industry.

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