As we enter 2014, the manufacturing sector looks set for the first strong year-end since the recession.
The sector reached a two year high for growth in August, and following the news from data firm Markit and the CIPS that manufacturing was a major boost to the UK’s economy in October, the outlook for 2014 is very optimistic. However, that optimism should be tempered with caution.
Competing with the Far East on cost and volume remains impossible, so for last quarter’s new shoots of growth to turn into something truly sustainable, it is vital for UK manufacturers to invest in new technology and embrace new ways of working. Agile, flexible business processes and a focus on customisable, bespoke manufacturing have emerged as important elements of a new approach that has been dubbed Industry 4.0.
The phrase was first coined two years ago at the Hanover Fair, the world’s biggest industrial fair, and defines this new phase in manufacturing as the fourth major industrial revolution, following steam, electricity and the more recent entry into the digital age. While this might seem like a grand comparison, it is certainly justified. Successfully embracing Industry 4.0 will enable the UK to regain its spot as a major manufacturing power.
However, achieving this new model is not without its challenges, starting with the level of investment required by companies. This is about much more than simply buying and installing the latest equipment, instead requiring a deep investment into integrating new business processes that affect the entire organisation.
The good news here is that we have seen significant proof of manufacturers rising to the challenge. Earlier this year for example we saw £1bn invested into technology and skills for the UK automotive industry, co-funded by the government and manufacturing companies. Likewise, the manufacturers’ association EEF and accountancy firm BDO LLP recently revealed a surge in investment from UK companies, with 24 per cent stating an intention to increase their investment levels – up from just seven per cent from the same poll in May. The result was the highest surge in investment since 2007 and the second highest since the survey began in the 1990s.
A more difficult challenge to address is ensuring that companies have the skilled workers and leadership capable of taking on these new ways of working. As part of a recent round of talks with spokespeople from around the industry, Epicor asked whether the increasing level of automation and ‘intelligence’ in production and business processes in manufacturing would result in IT skills becoming more important.
The response was an unanimous yes, but when we asked if this meant traditional technical skills would become less important, we received a firm no, with many respondents wary of becoming over-reliant on automation and losing the skills to understand and fix problems.
The manufacturing sector has an unfortunate reputation for being slow to embrace change and eager to cling on to traditional methods. If the industry is to remain relevant on the global stage against increasingly sophisticated operations in the Far East, UK manufacturers must prepare themselves for the new strategies required to earn the Industry 4.0 standard.
Steve Winder, Vice President, UK & Eire, Epicor