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Five key trends for manufacturing in the age of Industry 4.0

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of many Industry 4.0 technologies. Here we highlight five key trends as the UK seeks to build back better with an emphasis on zero carbon and economic resilience.

  1. On-shoring and ‘proximity’ manufacturing 

This trend was also visible before Covid, with a growing emphasis on green credentials in the market place. The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of domestic economies to extended and complex supply chains, based largely on price (exporting production to the Far East). As customers demand products faster, international tensions increased (trade war with China) and natural disasters loom (Covid and climate change), companies are switching to proximity manufacturing faster than ever.

On-shoring and proximity manufacturing requires new ways of working and the adoption of a flexible mix of Industry 4.0 technology and an upskilled workforce. Innovation, agility and reconfigurability will become key to success in this continually developing world.

  1. E-commerce

Even before Covid many SME manufacturers were exploring how the internet might help them escape the predatory pricing of wholesalers by connecting directly with customers. Covid has accelerated this trend (in first wave e-sales increased by 30%) and we can expect this to consolidate rather than revert back to traditional retail experiences.

Agility will be a key differentiator and brand identity ever more important as industry engages directly with the consumer. But brand control can enable greater control over price. Direct selling allows firms to reinforce MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) and communicate directly with consumers about price points. Critically, direct selling enables firms to collect a goldmine of data. Better customer data leads to better promotions, better products, better relationships and more sales.

  1. Advanced robotics

Yes, we know, robotics is one of the more mature technologies, some even consider them Industry 3! But adding Industry 4.0 technologies allows the field of robotics to constantly evolve. What we are now seeing is the development and deployment of autonomous robots, collaborative robots (cobots), collaborative autonomous mobile robots, cloud robotics, pick-and-place robots and robot swarms. Manufacturing applications of these new technologies in development at research centres such as the AMRC, meaning they are certainly on the horizon!

The UK is a laggard when it comes to the adoption of robotics. Reports now suggest that this is a probable cause of the UK’s poor productivity record over the last decade. We don’t even make it in to the top ten robot adopters. That might – but should – change with the Chancellors ‘super deduction’ on capital equipment. This could enable SMEs like Footprint Tools, instal another robot on their shop floor. The first one improved productivity three-fold.

  1. Artificial intelligence and machine learning

We are cautious on this, A blog post by our COO Robin Hartley cuts through the hype for current machining applications, and explains why less than 10% of UK manufacturers are leveraging AI and machine learning in their operations today. But this could change in 2021. As with a number of other Industry 4.0 technologies, Covid has changed perceptions of their potential uses.

One application, edge AI, has come to the fore during Covid to reduce infection risks by identifying employees, conducting thermal screenings, and monitoring employee interactions for contact tracing. Similar applications are being used to identify recurrent breaches in safety – think slips, trips and falls – and accelerate post-incident root cause analysis. With employee well-being coming to the fore during the pandemic, this could see the wider workplace adoption of Artificial Intelligence.

  1. Advanced connectivity

There has been much talk in recent years about the advent of 5G and how it will accelerate the adoption and expansion of Industry 4.0 technologies. This could be the year it happens prompted by significant government and private sector investment. Among the benefits are:

  • Predict downtime, optimise delivery and improve customer service in a trusted supply chain
  • Integration and exploitation of mobile IoT technology for digital manufacturing 
  • Optimise operations through connectivity between workers, machinery and supply chains
  • Develop full life-cycle product management from incoming materials to product recycling. 

For deeper Insights into how your business could benefit from Industry 4.0 see our Chief Operating Officer’s briefing paper here.

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