Maintaining productivity is an ongoing challenge in UK manufacturing: with hourly output lagging behind other global markets in 2016, and continuing to drop in 2017. And when we consider that the number of graduates is declining — the annual shortfall of graduate engineers hit 20,000 in 2017 — the mission to raise national productivity levels could seem like a losing battle. But it doesn’t have to be.

Companies that are developing talent strategies to help build skills in emerging areas, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and blockchain, are finding it fundamental to achieving efficient performance across the sector.

By taking a measured approach to embracing automation, upskilling employees to work alongside machines, and acquiring greater expertise, the manufacturing sector can work quicker, smarter, and more productively.

Technological transformation

Industry 4.0 is upon us and to increase productivity in the long-term, it is essential for manufacturers to embrace the digital transformation it brings. On the whole, most are optimistic about the implementation of new technologies, with 92% believing smart factory tech will allow them to increase productivity per headcount and thereby remain globally competitive. And they are right to be confident: integrating technologies into manufacturing has the potential to strengthen human capital, boost innovation, and – most importantly – increase productivity.

For example, implementing blockchain technologies has the potential to optimise procedural efficiency. With today’s extremely sophisticated and complex supply chain, it can be challenging to manage and conduct transactions. By leveraging blockchain, manufacturers can gain increased visibility into all processes. If used correctly, it would allow a global manufacturer to accurately monitor the flow of goods and provide an extra level of control.

But it’s important to recognise that smart manufacturing is not about picking one ‘miracle’ solution that does everything; it requires a committed, measured approach. Before simply replacing existing infrastructure, businesses need to weigh up multiple factors: costs, benefits, and outcomes. And once viable options are selected, continuous testing will be vital to ensure a smooth transition into Industry 4.0.

Talented teams

Digital evolution will bring change, especially when it comes to the human workforce, but this can be a positive shift. Manufacturers should see the rise of intelligent tech as a chance to upskill staff and expand their capabilities. After all, machines may have the potential to create products faster, but a human workforce possesses the analytical understanding and creative knowledge that is imperative to solve problems, and optimise factory production.

Furthermore, automation has created significant opportunities for professionals across the industry. For example, between 2000 and 2015, 3.5 million new highly-skilled job roles were created thanks to technological developments. From robot coordinators to AI specialists, the digital revolution will fuel the need for a larger and more diverse pool of talent.

To ensure the industry is adequately future proofed and continues to drive the UK economy, manufacturers must focus on both re-training existing staff and attracting new talent. Firstly, it will be crucial to increase the flow of incoming workers by connecting with potential industry talent at a younger age and reducing the cost of learning for relevant subjects. Secondly, the introduction of new job roles and tech will necessitate an emphasis on upskilling current workers.

Companies will need to implement a talent framework that sets out plans for providing realistic re-training as well as social support to workers whose job role has changed drastically. It will also be essential for the manufacturing industry to keep developing its practices, image, and recruitment approach in line with new technologies. For example, using augmented reality for training purposes in manufacturing hubs can spur improvements in productivity by shortening the learning curve for on-site teams. When used in conjunction with advanced computer training that simulates working environments, it can provide a scenario that is as close to reality as you can get, allowing workers to view holographic renderings of service parts.

Greater productivity

Ultimately, combining new technologies with talent has the potential to help re-invigorate the industry and secure its long-term future by completing the equation for manufacturing success. Through implementation of smart tech that helps meet specific business objectives and better workforce-wide training, UK firms can give their companies the tools needed to thrive in the age of industry 4.0 — and beyond.