Manufacturing during the ‘fourth industrial revolution’

The future is getting increasingly uncertain, with UK growth clouded by Brexit and political uncertainty across the globe. But one thing we can be sure about is that with the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the future of manufacturing is digital

Technologists describe the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) as one system which links physical networks with cyber networks, allowing real-time information flow. This will enable intelligence and product insight to be discovered and acted upon quickly, so there will be new ways of creating value.

Manufacturers talk about this revolution as using new technologies such as sensors, robotics and data analytics to gain insights into product use, improve productivity and competitiveness. This will bring new techniques that will change product design, production processes and customer relationships.

UK manufacturing will adapt to a new way of maximising value through the fourth industrial revolution

Better customer experiences, higher levels of efficiency and more highly skilled jobs will result.  The opportunity is clear, but with this will come disruption to traditional business models, new types of supply chain engagement, and the need to take employees and suppliers on the journey too. The UK cannot opt out.

Manufacturers are starting the fourth industrial revolution journey with their growth ambitions underpinned by the development of new business models including new services. There will also be greater focus on innovation in both new products and processes, along with closer collaboration within supply chains and investment in new technologies.

The three stages of fourth industrial revolution implementation 

That’s not to say all companies are quickly moving ahead in these areas. The application of 4IR technologies is an area where companies are still trying to understand how best to apply to their own businesses in three distinct phases.

The first phase is conception when companies figure out what the fourth industrial revolution is all about, what it can offer and how it could apply to their business. The second phase, evolution, is a period when there is some advancement on current practice. Concepts and off-the-shelf solutions can be implemented and tested, further optimising current processes and putting in place new solutions. The third and final phase is revolution when the step-change occurs in terms of how value is derived, and how interaction with customers and suppliers happens.

For those at the conception phase, optimising processes and supply chains is where some early wins will be found. The evolution of manufacturing processes and the revolution of the product and service offerings to customers will follow, but this will happen in fits and starts.

Sharing of best practice through technology diffusion and peer learning from companies at the frontier is where a lot of improvement will take place. We are helping manufacturers navigate the complexities and challenges presented by the fourth industrial revolution and to seize upon the many opportunities it will afford.

How government policy can support the fourth industrial revolution 

In addition to manufacturers adapting their own processes to meet this evolving challenge, there is a role for government policy here too. Industrial strategy must play a role in enabling companies to learn, adapt and adopt more quickly, not just to keep pace with competitors, but to propel them to the head of the league table.

The opportunity is clear, but with this will come disruption to traditional business models

Sector deals, such as Made Smarter led by Professor Juergen Maier on industrial digitalisation, should help inform this. Government must also play a role in the skills required to implement 4IR, from encouraging young people to pursue a career in engineering to upskilling the current workforce with the necessary digital skills.

Despite the political turbulence and potential uncertainty, this is a very exciting time for industry in the UK and the economic gains will be significant. UK manufacturing will always adapt, as it will to a new world post Brexit and a new way of maximising value through the fourth industrial revolution.