The fourth industrial revolution is coming – here’s how to thrive

For manufacturers, technology is moving fast. We welcome it. As a business we are about driving change. New technology is what makes us successful.

But there are risks. The fourth industrial revolution brought by data and connectivity creates a great need to compete with big disruptive technologies otherwise we will fail, with terrible consequences for the next generation. Yet it is also the next generation who are best equipped to thrive in this environment.

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We find that the staff who have the right mentality and skills to work in this world have often gone through the apprenticeship process. If you’re planning to be in business in five or ten years’ time, and you’re not taking on apprentices who are digital natives, then you’re short-sighted. It’s vital to employ the best people you can afford and invest in the next generation through apprenticeship. Don’t just invest in software and hardware – invest in people.

It’s also vital to develop and stress-test a five to seven-year strategic plan; invest against this, rather than shorter-
term tactical imperatives. The big themes in the plan should be to invest to draw value from your data, improve processes and drive global cost-competitiveness.

There are many technologies to embrace. Manufacturers need to understand additive manufacture such as 3D printing, robotics and autonomous production, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, analytics, advances in materials science and much more.

Data can predict product deterioration before anything happens to disrupt your supply chain

One theme that draws many of these together is data. Increasingly, manufacturers have an ability to collect data and are learning that it can do so much more than telling you whether your machine is working. Data can predict maintenance and product deterioration before anything happens to disrupt your supply chain. Data analytics is here whether we like it or not.

We, like many smaller manufacturers, are excellent at collecting data, but it’s what you do with it that counts. By using data analytics, we have been able to cut our cycle time for one of our products by 40 per cent. The immediate benefits of this include reducing cost per part and increasing capacity and this adds up to higher productivity. To better compete on the world stage, this is essential.

We are also investing in a fully robotic, closed-loop manufacturing cell in 2018 to improve productivity in the supply chain. We are also planning for a completely new enterprise resource planning platform for deployment in 2019. Our current ERP system was implemented 16 years ago, and it is ideal for small and mid-sized firms, but as we continue our rapid growth it doesn’t give us what we need. We have to develop our in-house data analytics capability, and to do that we need a system that gives real-time, accurate data that can be manipulated and help us make better decisions.

Being small is not an excuse for being a late-adopter. Small should mean agile, not slow

These technologies all drive value from data, helping to improve productivity and capability. Being small is not an excuse for being a late-adopter. Small should mean agile, not slow.

Digital transformation in manufacturing is driving process capability and productivity in existing systems. It’s reducing time to market through faster prototyping and product optimisation. It’s facilitating the global supply of product and services, irrespective of geographic location. It’s the future.

Andrew Churchill is executive chairman of JJ Churchill, a family-owned aerospace precision engineering business based in the Midlands. He sits on the board of EEF: The Manufacturers’ Organisation, and his many industry roles include being an advisory panel member of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Trade and Investment.