09 May 2019

Dwelling on my recent article for the North East Times about the widespread opportunities for manufacturing companies to embrace digitalisation and related conversations I have had with clients and contacts who are potential users of the many technology solutions that can help enhance the productivity of their businesses, it frequently occurs to me that the government, trade bodies, tech companies and advisers such as ourselves all pushing the apparently transformational benefits of 'Industry 4.0' can become tiresome.

The concept of fully ‘connected factories’, whether on a single site or multi-plant basis, is exciting but the projects and ancillary activities require very substantial investment in terms of time and money and they carry significant risk of disruption to business continuity if things do not go according to plan. Wiring up our home entertainment systems and domestic appliances to the internet is one thing, but we all know how crippling it can be to our home or family harmony when routers fail, files become corrupted or the connection is lost. Doing something similar with a finely tuned process plant, the profitability of which is often geared to the asset running for as long as possible at close to its full capacity, is a very different proposition. 

It is understandable that management teams have reservations about risking the cost of outages and the associated loss of production in the hunt for improved productivity. Nevertheless, we should not let concerns associated with system failures or cyber threats deter UK manufacturers from embracing new technologies. Businesses should start small and take one step at a time. The use of sensors and embedded intelligence to enhance only part of the process or which enable predictive maintenance of individual components can cost just a few thousand pounds to implement but the savings for the business can run into the hundreds of thousands. Equally, manufacturers should focus on effectively adopting the IT solutions and automation which comprise 'Industry 3.0' before being tempted to go further. Solution providers and advisers should first of all help businesses to get the fundamentals right and create a sound platform and internal skills base to enable the next steps to be taken.