But as with all industries, these sectors, over time, have undergone monumental change, with new technology and processes seeing industries transform across the globe.

One of the key developments in recent years has been the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, which refers to the use of enabling technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to revolutionise the way companies manufacture, improve, and distribute products. It is categorised as the fourth industrial revolution in the context of the three that preceded it. The first saw the use of water and steam power to mechanize production in the 18th century, the second, which used electricity to create mass production in the 19th century, and the third, which saw the introduction of electronics and IT systems in the 20th century.

In each of these cases the introduction of new technology had a massive impact on the global economic landscape and saw the emergence of new sectors and opportunities. Now, in this fourth phase, its clear Northern Ireland has fully embraced the opportunities it brings, which can only be expected from a nation of innovators. Read on to find out more.

Advanced manufacturing in Northern Ireland and the drive for Industry 4.0

Manufacturing has always been at the very heart of Northern Ireland’s economy, and currently, it accounts for 11% of the country’s employment and 15% of its GVA. Indeed, the capabilities of the sector were clearly demonstrated last year during the initial days of the Pandemic, when more than 50 Northern Irish companies stepped forward to assist in the production of lifesaving ventilators and personal protection equipment.

It's therefore no surprise that the importance of the sector to the economy was recently recognised with the establishment of the Makers Alliance, which, supported by a £197,200 investment by Invest Northern Ireland, will lead its strategic development.

What’s more, a number of other initiatives have been launched In recognition of Northern Ireland’s skill set and expertise in this space. These include the City & Growth deals which present a massive opportunity for the country to be at the forefront of revolutionising advanced manufacturing. Over the next ten years, for instance, more than £140 million will be invested in digitalisation and Industry 4.0 capabilities.

Part of this will be a £98 million investment to develop the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC) through the Belfast City Region deal. Supported by Queen’s University Belfast, this state-of-the-art Factory of the Future will be industry driven and allow companies to develop new processes and products within a fully automated and digitised factory.

AMIC also builds on the capabilities of the Northern Ireland Advanced Composites and Engineering Centre (NIACE) which is also supported by Invest Northern Ireland. It provides access to world class composites resources including work space, laboratories, and, most notably,

Finally, plans are in motion for the Design Smarter Digital Twin Centre, which will focus on the aerospace, marine and defence sectors and be one of a network of digital twin centres being planned across the UK. The Centre for Industry Digitalisation, Robotics & Automation (CIDRA), a state-of-the art facility that will be based at Ulster University’s Magee campus in Londonderry/Derry, will provide a dedicated space for robotics, automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) focusing on the human robot interface. Also plans for a Hydrogen Academy in Ballymena, underpinning Northern Ireland’s net zero and green economy goals are being finalised.design visualisation facilities, which, in collaboration with Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast, supports businesses and researchers to develop innovative composites technology solutions.

With world-leading resources such as these, paired with the country’s strong supply chain, well-developed innovation eco-system, quality infrastructure, skilled workforce and links to both Europe and the UK, Northern Ireland clearly sets itself apart as a lucrative location for global and home-grown companies alike with an eye on the future and the opportunities presented by Industry 4.0.

Industries to watch

Northern Ireland is home to an estimated 2,200 advanced manufacturing, materials and engineering (AMME) companies, which employ more than 46,000 people. The country has a world-class reputation for its strength in many areas including plastics and polymers, composites design and manufacturing, precision manufacturing, and specialist joinery and fit-out. Here, we will explore a selection of the companies operating in Northern Ireland that are benefitting from the innovation brought forward by Industry 4.0.

Aerospace

“Northern Ireland is one of Europe’s leading aerospace regions in terms of revenue, and a number of major global companies operate in NI such as Spirit AeroSystems, Collins Aerospace and Thales. Spirit AeroSystems has extensive facilities in the Greater Belfast Area, which manufacture a range of advanced composite and aluminium aerostructures, including wings, fuselages and engine nacelles, for commercial and business aircraft OEMs suc

h as Airbus and Bombardier, underpinning its status as a global leader in composites and nacelle development within the Aerospace sector.

There is also a cohort of home-grown aerospace companies, such as Denroy, a leading innovator in the design and manufacture of engineered polymer components and solutions, including thermoplastic aerospace parts and assemblies. Based in Bangor, County Down, the company supplies global industry giants, Airbus and Boeing.

Automation

The rise of Industry 4.0 has seen a shift in focus to automated technologies, which use the Internet of Things to connect, control and monitor networks in real time, thereby optimising production. This approach will have an enormous impact on the workplace, and in spite of the headlines predicting mass unemployment, the Ulster University Economic

One innovative automation company that has invested in Northern Ireland is the Robot Exchange, which specialises in Robotic Process Engineering (RPA) solutions that facilitate the automation of repetitive tasks. The company has invested in research and development in Lisburn that will deliver innovation in the areas of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Other recent investors in the region include Seagate and Schrader, who have all benefited from support from Invest NI via the 4manufacturing initiative, which provides a framework for deploying digital technologies developed by KTN and Innovate UK. Policy Centre estimates that up to 98,600 additional jobs could be created by 2030 in Northern Ireland as a result of automation. Meanwhile, resulting economic output could range from £44bn to £52bn in Gross Value Added (GVA).

Why Northern Ireland?

Here, we’ve provided a mere snapshot of how Industry 4.0 is transforming the industrial landscape across Northern Ireland. We’re committed to investing in the future with the skills, infrastructure and facilities our manufacturing and engineering industries needs to sta

y ahead, and, as a result, traditional industries are evolving, and new opportunities are emerging.

A major driving force behind this has been industry itself, which, thanks to its pioneering spirit, has recognised the role novel technologies can play in improving business – from making environments safer to creating more efficient processes to freeing up the workforce for higher value work. In collaboration with our world-leading academic partners, both global and home grown players have had the appetite to try, test and innovate.

Of course, a key ingredient here is the support available to businesses. At Invest Northern Ireland, we provide comprehensive packages to companies encompassing supply chain assistance, support with R&D, investment in skills and capital to invest in new equipment, premises and more.

More broadly, Northern Ireland is a welcoming home from home for global industry. Recent investors include Tribe Technology, an autonomous drill rig manufacturer, which recently announced the creation of a new design and manufacturing facility that will create 120 new jobs. To help make it happen, Invest Northern Ireland invested £984,000 to support with salary costs.

It’s clear, therefore, that Northern Ireland’s fourth industrial revolution doesn’t end here - it’s only just beginning. With a supportive environment equipped with the best facilities, investment in skills and experienced industry leaders, it’s the place to produce, engineer and manufacture a thriving future.

Invest Northern Ireland is the region’s business development organisation. Its role is to grow the local economy by helping new and existing businesses to compete internationally, and by attracting new investment to Northern Ireland.

Find out more about how we can work together with you and your business by clicking here.