How the UK can lead the 4th Industrial Revolution

4 mins read

By Nick Wright, Head of Manufacturing Industries at Digital Catapult

The turn of any decade presents a natural moment for all of us to reflect and take stock. For businesses, it offers an opportunity to evaluate progress and assess the opportunities and technologies that will help them achieve their goals in the years to come.

Yet for many, the global pandemic has disrupted the natural planning cycle and necessitated a radical rethink. We’ve had to learn and adapt quickly. As a result, there is an accelerated learning cycle driving changes that we envisioned taking shape over several years, in a matter of months.

Amidst navigating such challenging operating conditions, the UK’s manufacturing industry has an unprecedented opportunity – where, by wholeheartedly embracing new smart technologies, it can chart a considered path towards world leading status as part of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

The tools to lead

The strength of the UK’s innovative startup community – the UK has the highest number working with advanced technologies compared with other leading countries in Europe[1] – offers a huge amount of untapped potential.It puts UK industry in a prime position to access the benefits provided through the development of new, innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing.

Despite this, recent research from Make UK revealed that almost half of manufacturers (44%) are not yet implementing these advanced technologies - thereby missing out on opportunities to raise productivity and efficiency, create higher-paid, higher-skilled jobs and optimise supply chains. Key barriers according to the report are a lack of digital skills and technical knowledge, concerns about data compatibility and lack of finance.[2]

To unlock the transformative potential that these technologies offer the industry, fostering closer collaboration between manufacturers and the digital technology innovation community will be key.

Untapped potential

The Made Smarter Review, an independent review of industrial digitalisation commissioned by the UK Government in 2017, outlined that there is £455 billion of potential value-add into the UK economy if manufacturers implement industrial digital technologies. That translates to a phenomenal increase in manufacturing sector growth of between 1.5-3% per annum, a 25% improvement in productivity and, importantly for companies working towards net-zero targets, a 4.5% reduction in greenhouse gases.[3]

Three years on since the publication of this review, the value that digital transformation across industry could bring to manufacturers and the UK as a whole has only snowballed. As too has the pressure to boost the economy in a sustainable way – particularly in the wake of Covid-19 and as Brexit becomes a reality.

And action is arguably more urgent than ever, to ensure that UK manufacturers keep pace with other markets across the globe seeking to rebuild their international competitiveness. It is therefore essential that any barriers hindering the progress of manufacturers’ digital journey, particularly for SMEs, are broken down.

Overcoming the obstacles

One of the primary obstacles in manufacturers driving towards to a 4th industrial revolution has long been tangible use case examples. It’s all very well talking about the impact of technology on business processes and the bottom line, but the financial commitment that comes with rolling out any new technology means the ROI needs to be clearly demonstrated. Understandably, the current economic conditions mean many across the industry are focused on operational efficiency, cutting costs and protecting margins.

For manufacturers to truly thrive in such challenging circumstances, they should view the financial aspect not as a cost – but as an investment. Digital Catapult’s Made in 5G report highlighted the five major challenges to digital adoption, but also showed how recent test projects are already proving that these challenges can be overcome.[4] The Connected Factory project proved the immediate impact and productivity benefits from implementing an internet of things network across a factory environment, saving one SME manufacturer an estimated £2 million per year on remanufacturing parts, and another estimated a five percent improvement in productivity overall, equivalent to the work of eight people.[5]

Enabling innovation

To make the move into understanding, and ultimately using more advanced technology a success, manufacturers must foster strong relationships with innovators, and with other organisations inside and outside of the manufacturing sector. The response to the present crisis clearly demonstrates the power of innovation and collaboration, and the impact of applying lessons from one sector to another with a little imagination.

To help deliver this innovation and collaboration, Digital Catapult has launched a new programme, the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator. The programme, funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, as part of the national Made Smarter movement, aims to work as a long-term partnership between leading UK manufacturers and the digital technology innovation community, to develop innovative solutions that address many of the UK’s key manufacturing challenges. It also intends to create pathways for the aforementioned use cases and commercialised industrial applications of advanced technologies to be used in not just one company, but multiple.

As such, this match-funded programme will include medium and large organisations who will form a select group at the forefront of digital adoption, helping to define the scope of challenges whilst taking an active role in the programme. The challenges focus on five themes: intelligent factory/site management and control; intelligent product verification and validation; transparent and data driven procurement; digitally enabled factory/site workforce; and resource measurement and analytics.

Once the partners are on board and the challenges have been defined, the programme will work with the UK’s world-leading technology innovation community, providing them with the necessary funding and a platform to grow, with the view to developing prototypes, and eventually bringing mature products and services to market for manufacturers, to address these challenges.

Charting a path beyond 2020

The technology being created within the UK has the scope to revolutionise the manufacturing sector – but to do so manufacturers of all sizes need to show leadership by investing in partnerships with technology companies and with each other.

The manufacturing industry has long been primed for digital transformation. Now is the time to turn the wheel and drive a technological revolution.

To aid economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic; drive improved productivity, increase market capitalisation, export growth; and accelerate sectors across the manufacturing industry towards the UK Government’s net-zero by 2050 target,

Register interest via

[1] Digital Catapult, collating evidence from Crunchbase, Angel List, Companies House and other sources

[2] Bouncing Back Smarter: Innovation Monitor 2020, Make UK

[3] The Made Smarter Review, Made Smarter

[4] Made in 5G: exploring the future of connectivity and 5G in UK manufacturing, Digital Catapult

[5] The Connected Factory, Digital Catapult