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What is blocking the path to the fourth industrial revolution

01 September, 2022

The UK lags behind other industrial nations in adopting digitised manufacturing technologies. Why is this? Nikesh Mistry*, Gambica’s sector head for automation, reports on a recent gathering of experts to discuss the issue.

I recently came across an interesting quote from Marshall McLuhan: “The future of the future is the present”. While this paradigm can be applied to many different scenarios, I would like to use it to understand the requirements of the UK manufacturing industry through the Fourth Industrial Revolution – or 4IR.

The numerous different terms used to define 4IR can cause a misunderstanding of the concept which, in turn, creates an obstacle to its adoption. Many are unable to see the return-on-investment because so much is no longer physical but is in a digital form which makes it difficult to visualise the benefits.

Not every step towards digitalisation means forking out thousands of pounds as it may have done in the past. If truth be told, many companies simply cannot afford to start from scratch with tonnes of brand-new equipment.

Sometimes tiny changes such as adding a few new sensors or a variable-speed drive to a piece of legacy equipment can not only increase its lifespan, but also improve its efficiency. Most digitalisation upgrades can be retrofitted to existing machinery to enhance its capabilities. Companies need to assess what they already have, and identify how they can bring their legacy equipment into the IoT era. The business problem or goal must be identified before the technology can be assessed.

The new digital world means sales are frequently turnkey systems consisting of both hardware and software and, due to the ability of digital data to provide real-time results, companies can start to achieve improvements much faster than before.

Many Gambica members face the challenge of assisting manufacturers to achieve their full potential with 4IR. At a recent meeting of our industrial automation council, our experts discussed what they felt were the toughest obstacles to adopting digital transformation, and examined how Gambica, as a trade association, could help to bridge the gap.

Several overlapping themes came out of the discussion, which members agreed were big hinderances. As well as the return-on-investment mentioned above, many feel that a lack of skills and knowledge may be the cause for the slow take-up of digital technologies. The issue can be seen in companies that allocate maintenance tasks to the same employees who are also being taught about new digital equipment – but it is not usually possible for both to be handled by the same role. New roles are needed to tackle digital transformation, and the UK seems to be falling behind in upskilling its workforce.

It can be difficult for companies to understand digital transformation for what it is, and not to think of it as installing “technology for technology’s sake”. Many of the Gambica experts feel that there is a lack of understanding about why these technologies are needed, and the knock-on effects are often forgotten.

Another area of concern is losing skilled engineers and technicians to “more attractive” jobs. Because the UK is a service-focused economy, many talented workers are lured into the IT and finance sectors by the attractive salaries, or the “sexiness” of the jobs compared to engineering. However this is often due to the way that technical jobs are advertised, and this needs to change.

Technical jobs are much more attractive now, especially as a result of the fourth industrial revolution. Some have fantastic salaries and the misconception that engineers have to get down and dirty all day puts many younger people off. We need to enhance their awareness of the number of jobs available in areas such as data analytics and robotics. We must emphasize this to them from school age, to help them to understand the reality of technical jobs, and thus to make jobs in industry more attractive.

Gambca has already started to do this by creating a young persons council, consisting of younger members at the early stages of their careers. Using their experiences, we need to learn how we can encourage the next generation to become involved in the same way. I will be giving more details about this council soon.

 

* Gambica is the trade association for the automation, control, instrumentation and laboratory technology sectors in the UK.

For more information, please contact Nikesh Mistry on 020 7642 8094 or via nikesh.mistry@gambica.org.uk




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