The rise of AI, and associated digital and robotic technologies, presents exciting new opportunities for UK manufacturers and promises even greater levels of efficiency, productivity and profitability.
Over the past five years industry in the UK has experienced a significant injection of funding in support of international scientific collaboration – with the government committing £7 billion to R&D, and a further £121 million to the Made Smarter initiative which supports digitally-enabled technologies within manufacturing.
Recent figures from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) certainly seem to back up the growing enthusiasm among certain industries for the benefits of factory automation.
Collaborative robot technology (or what’s been coined the cobot) is now in common use within the automotive manufacturing industry. In October 2018, the IFR reported their fifth consecutive year of record growth, with the sale of industrial robots increasing by thirty percent year on year.
Currently, though, the greatest uptake of industrial robotics would appear to reside largely in the domain of the automotive industry.
And despite the insistence from electronics manufacturers that they are open to exploring Smart Factory technologies and AI, the uptake has actually been much less than might have been expected.
UK uptake of Smart Factory technologies
According to the Annual Manufacturing Report published earlier this year, twenty-seven percent of respondents indicated that the integration of Smart Factory technology within their industry simply wasn’t on their “radar”.
Of those manufacturers who reported that they have already started to successfully adopt Smart Factory technology, twenty-percent said that they had used it purely in the context of a standalone project, rather than as a factory-wide initiative.
A relatively modest fifteen percent of respondents said that the key functionality of digital technology had been widely integrated within their company – with just two percent saying that they had been successful in digitising their entire factory, from supply chain and production to workforce management.
So why the reticence in the uptake of Smart Factory technology in the UK?
The looming uncertainty of Brexit undoubtedly has a major role to play, as UK manufacturers and their outsourcing partners await the consequences for the wider European industrial community.
And according to the Cyber Security for Manufacturing report, another substantial fear for manufacturers lies in their uncertainty around cybersecurity.
Among the report’s key findings was the fact that nearly half (48%) of UK manufacturers surveyed admitted to having fallen victim to some form of cyber crime.
For those manufacturers who have taken steps to integrate digital technology the old adage “more haste less speed” may well also have a ring of truth. There is the very real risk that businesses who choose to act too quickly, could find that their new IoT solutions – and especially those that have been tacked onto legacy machinery – could come at the expense of their cyber safety.
So what needs to happen for digital transformation to become a realistic option for a wider range of manufacturing industries?
According to some industry experts, one possible route for smaller businesses could be to utilise these technologies as a service. Robotics as a Service for example, could provide manufacturers with the ability to access sophisticated robotic technology via a subscription fee rather than having to purchase the products upfront.
And in a further expansion of the now well-established outsourcing model, we might also start to see the delivery of the ‘Smart Factory as a Service’ (SFaaS) – where manufacturers are able to avoid upfront investment costs by outsourcing the capital-intensive aspects of their business to an external provider.
There are clear signs that new digital technologies have the potential to transform the way in which manufacturing businesses operate.
The rollout of 5G looks set to play a key role in expanding the usefulness of automated robotic applications that rely on fast and reliable connectivity.
And by offering electronics manufacturing businesses a greater degree of flexibility in how they can access these new technologies, uptake can hopefully only increase.