Is the UK manufacturing sector prepared for Industry 4.0?

New research commissioned by the provider of technology-enabled, rapid manufacturing solutions, Protolabs — in partnership with Censuswide — has revealed that a high proportion of senior decision makers do not acknowledge the role digitisation plays in manufacturing; nor do they recognise the benefits of automation and digital technology in UK manufacturing.

The survey of senior business decision makers – including those within manufacturing businesses – found that more than a quarter (28.2%) still associate manufacturing with ‘assembly lines’, and a similar number (24.6%) associate it with ‘manual labour’.

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The survey further revealed that only one in ten see any association between manufacturing and ‘Industry 4.0’, a term now popularly used to describe the increased use of web-connected industrial processes, which employs software, robotics and advanced automation for greater productivity, quality and efficiency.

Another statistic that makes a strong statement is that relating to the perception of manufacturing. Almost half of senior decision makers (48.7%) indicated that UK companies need to invest more in R&D to retain their high position in the global manufacturing market.

When asked what is required to support industry growth, over a third (35%) support a greater focus on attracting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to develop fresh talent and expertise to bolster industry growth.

Stephen Dyson, strategy, innovation and leadership at Protolabs, said: “The UK manufacturing sector is powered by innovation, and driven by entrepreneurial individuals partnered with highly-skilled engineers. This sector has embraced the benefits of digital technologies and automation possibly more than any other, and now the growth of digitisation is starting to transform manufacturing. Industry 4.0 is a more than a concept – people are living in it right now. However, the results of this survey indicate that there is limited understanding of Industry 4.0 and the impact it has already made, and will continue to make, to the progress of manufacturing. Additionally, the survey statistics reflect that manufacturing is not viewed as a high-tech, digitally-savvy industry, which is what British businesses increasingly are. Instead, the inherent perception remains of manufacturing with manual, labour-intensive processes.”

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Despite recent publicity around the rise of automation, respondents to the survey indicated that automation is not expected to have a significant effect on their business models. In fact, 15% of those surveyed have no automation in their manufacturing services, and one in ten (9.7%) expect no or only a little (15%) increase in automation in their business over the next five years.

“Automation and digital technologies can now rapidly manufacture large quantities of parts, in production-ready quality, previously not conceivable,” said Dyson. “For those businesses not directly utilising automation or automated process, rather than overlook this trend, the assertion is that automation (in some guise) can drive cost and time savings in all businesses in the long-run. In fact, it could be argued that companies that do not embrace digital, automated processes or technology could be placing their business at a disadvantage in today’s fast-paced climate.”

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...