Industry 4.0: Where is the UK in the global race?

7 min read

Industry 4.0 is a particularly German invention, so how is the UK doing relative to its European cousins? And should we be thinking of this as a relay rather than a race against other nations? Hywel Roberts looks at the state of play

Steve Brambley laughs wryly when asked where the UK stands in the global race to reach Industry 4.0 standard. “As usual behind Germany,” automation trade body Gambica’s deputy-director, industrial automation concedes. This is not hugely surprising, especially given the term itself came out of a consultation between the German government and its leading industrialists.

Ever since the term Industry 4.0 was first uttered at the 2011 Hannover Fair, governments have been falling over themselves to show they are supporting their respective manufacturing industries in their attempts to reach the hyper-connected promised land. The name comes from the fact there have previously been three paradigm shifts in industrial progress: steam power, electricity and automated machinery.

The fourth jump forward is being powered by computerisation and ‘cyber physical systems’, leading to machines communicating with each other and leading to factories that are increasingly managed via remote technology including smart phones and tablets.

And the German government has definitely followed through in its commitment to this new world of connectivity. A 2015 report by Gambica showed that it has invested £439 billion in Industry 4.0 innovation, more than six times of the UK’s level of funding (£162bn).

But despite this disparity, Brambley is fairly bullish about the UK’s overall progress. And the good news is we will all see the benefit of the Germans’ financial backing.

“I don’t think we’re lagging a great deal,” he continues. “There are already a lot of ties between ourselves and Germany, both in our standards bodies and through our Catapult Centres. The UK is not trying to do this on its own. The international standards work is being done at a global level. It’s not a competitive thing, it’s more about how we can hook into this and make the most of it.”

Connections great and small

One British site where the fruits of German investment are obvious is Coventry’s Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre (AMTC). Here apprentices train on a purpose-built Industry 4.0 training rig, installed by Bosch Rexroth. The German company was there at the birth of Industry 4.0 and its leaders were heavily involved in the original talks with the German government. Now the UK is benefitting from that pedigree and knowledge.

“We gain an advantage through our relationship with Bosch Rexroth by having access to the latest technology that’s affecting the industry,” explains Paul Rowlett, managing director, AMTC. “We have access to the equipment, but also we have access to the information from the industry professionals. We have access to their training materials and programmes; not just for the training of our apprentices but also the training of our staff.”

This sharing of information is starting to pay off. Some sites in the UK are leading the world in smart factory technology. The AMTC has its own virtual reality cave, as does Siemens in Congleton, that allow factory managers to zoom around the site and identify problems, as well as plan solutions, without interrupting production to inspect physical machinery. Marquee brands including Rolls Royce Aerospace Engines and Audi have used this technology to tighten up their production processes, displaying the collaborative mindset that prevails across the industry. The advanced 3-D modelling offered not only allows a virtual tour of sites but can also deconstruct components for engineers to inspect using augmented reality, pinpointing problems without the need to expensive prototypes.

But despite this clear progress, Siemens business manager, factory Simon Keogh believes we are still at the “early stages” of connecting machinery and working practices.

“We have some industries such as the automotive sector that are using a lot of technology, such as 3D imaging and modelling, as part of its design and production processes,” he says. “But we have some sectors where this isn’t widespread, and some need to play catch up in terms of the connectivity across their manufacturing cells.”

This lack of connectivity across some key areas means there are still some areas of manufacturing bases that are working “very much in isolation.”

“When we pick data up from these places they are still very much in the traditional clip board format,” he continues. He puts the disparity across sectors across to a combination of varying levels of money and resource available and a lack of certainly over short to mid-term ROI.

“It can be seen as a capex expenditure,” he explains. “And leaders can’t necessarily quantify the payback time and the return on investment. Having said this, overall the UK ranks pretty high in its investment in automation. The problem we have is that we’re starting from a point where automation is around one twentieth of what it is in Germany, for example, so to get to that Industry 4.0 baseline of connectivity there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Few would argue that we are far from the goal of reaching Industry 4.0 standard. But most of the work is around training and implementation, as most of the technology we need already exists. But currently only the top names in the industry have access to it. Keogh believes the onus is on these trailblazers to share the information with those without the time or resources to develop their own technology first-hand, and he believes there is an appetite for doing so.

He says: “There are many events taking place up and down the country, hosted by various manufacturers and trade organisations, so there’s been a great deal of activity around Industry 4.0 for the past 18 months to two years. So a lot of taking place around educating and knowledge sharing. I think people are genuinely open to sharing when there isn’t a competitive situation.”

All your eggs in one basket

Clearly the benefits of Industry 4.0 are tangible and easy to ascertain. Increased connectivity allows centralised control that saves time and resource for sites managers, while creaking machinery can be monitored and replaced before it slows production. But what of the risks? Taking control of whole suites of machinery through one central device can lead to potentially catastrophic problems if the central server goes down. So how can you prevent a total collapse of production if a problem occurs, for example the server crashing? Andy Bailey, availability architect at Stratus Technologies, sees servers as a bottleneck that could cancel out all gains made by improved connectivity.

“Industry standard hardware quote an availability figure of about 99%,” he says. “Mathematically that translates as average annual downtime of about 87 hours, which is just unacceptable today. This downtime leads to loss of revenue and loss of reputation. Industry 4.0 is all about quality of service. You have thousands of devices in out there collecting date, but that data is useless unless you can perform meaningful analysis on it. So those devices have got to be able to talk to a central suppository of information, so it’s imperative that these data centres have the highest level of availability.”

One of the reasons server downtime is happening is that solutions are inherently reactive, with technology “waiting for a failure” before acting. Even when the server is fixed, this downtime may have already led to the data collected being compromised, according to Bailey.

“Even when you’re back up and running, how can you be sure that the data is consistent?” he asks. “The truth is in most cases you can’t. But when you get into conversations about fault-resistant technology the issue of cost is often a major barrier to adoption. People in the manufacturing sector are often laggards when it comes to adopting this technology. People don’t always see the risk associated with virtualisation and putting all your eggs in one basket. If you aggressively implement virtualisation what you’re doing is putting all your services onto one hardware platform. If that fails it brings down the whole house with it.”

Unstoppable force

Despite this note of caution, what is obvious is that Industry 4.0 now has irresistible momentum. But who is responsible for taking it to the next level? Steve Brambley believes it is down to “entrepreneurial manufacturing visionaries” to lead the charge.

“Now we have this ability to connect everything up and connect a lot of data, but what are we going to do with it?” he asks. “What is the revolution? The technology isn’t really revolutionary. It’s a bit better, faster and more connected but what you use it for makes the difference. I liken it quite often to the early days of the internet. We had servers and modems and could download a picture in about 10 minutes. But it took entrepreneurs to come along and realise the commercial opportunities to come up with business models to change sectors such as banking and travel.”

So Industry 4.0 is essentially a revolution of ideas rather than pure technology. The building blocks are in place, but now site managers just need to be persuaded they cannot afford to put off investing. As with any technology, early adopters patting each other on the back for seeing the opportunities isn’t what is going to drive progress.

Ultimately they need to persuade the masses that this is a revolution for all. That will eventually happen, most probably when ROI gains become more obvious, but the speed of adoption in the UK will be key to ensure we are not left behind.

The Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre was set up in Coventry in 2015 to improve training and standards in many of the factors that lead into Industry 4.0. Finton Collins is the information training lead at the site.

What is your role at AMTC?

My role is to integrate modern industry practices into the training of apprentices so that when they leave they can hit the ground running when they go out into the workplace.

How do the students react when they come and see the Industry 4.0 rig and training materials?

At first it’s very overwhelming. They have rigs and machinery that they haven’t used before. But once they see it in operation they start to realise that a lot of it is actually very intuitive.

Where do you see Industry 4.0 in the UK?

Industry 4.0 isn’t at the vanguard of manufacturing at the moment, it’s more about what’s coming next. But that create fantastic opportunities both for myself and the apprentices.

Is it an advantage that students are used to connectivity in their day to day lives?

It’s actually a disadvantage for me because they don’t appreciate it. It’s all there for them at home through the internet and modern technology. Whereas the likes of me are more from the old-school and I’ve seen the evolution of technology. With them they just open an app and it’s all there at their fingertips.

Do you teach coding as part of the training?

Yes in the automation stream we do coding as well. They’ll learn basic coding in a number of languages and they’ll see it on a practical electronic board. I really think that’s going to put them in a good place when they leave here compared to those leaving training even five or 10 years ago.

Industry 4.0 – A timeline

October 2011 – Term first used at the Hannover Fair in Germany

October 2012 – Industrial working group presents recommendations to German government

December 2014 – UK government announces the £36m AMTC will open in Coventry

January 2015 – Accenture report claims Industry 4.0 could be worth up to $531bn to UK economy

January 2016 – Davos hosts a major international forum on Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 in numbers

£352bn – The potential value added to the UK economy by 2030

$14.2tr – Potential value to the global economy across same period

£439bn invested in Industry 4.0 by German government

£162bn invested across the same period by the UK government

73% of C-suite executives admit they have done no work around Industry 4.0