As digital technologies transform the manufacturing sector, what role do its engineers have in navigating change? A crucial one, say experts
Most manufacturing engineers expect major change over the next five to ten years, according to a survey about the future of engineering from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
This is perhaps unsurprising given the host of challenges currently facing the manufacturing sector, from supply chain disruption to rising energy prices. At the same time, new digital technologies are accelerating the pace of change, making it faster to innovate, collaborate and develop products for less cost.
What does this future look like for manufacturing engineers – and what role will they play in getting there? Here a range of experts share their insights.
The Skills of the Future for Manufacturing Engineers
The same IMechE and IET survey found that communication, creativity, and design skills will be some of the most important attributes for engineers in the manufacturing industry. Leadership skills are important too, both for managing an engineering team and more, with 15% of FTSE 100 companies having a CEO with an engineering background.
“You can’t delegate digital transformation for your company. You and your executives have to own it”
Barry Ross, change management specialist
Those involved in supporting companies during a period of change argue that leaders with an engineering background have the right experience to support change – and the right leadership is vital to making this process a success. As change management specialist Barry Ross puts it, “You can’t delegate digital transformation for your company. You and your executives have to own it.
“Executives need to engage, embrace and adopt new ways of working with the latest and emerging technologies.”
Mohamed Abdelhak from engineering software company Autodesk agrees. He told the audience at IMechE’s Engineering Futures event that “Transformation really needs to be driven from the top. Executive-level buy-in isn’t enough.
“What is really needed is executive leadership.”
Engineers will also need skills in automation, robotics, and mechatronics as well as artificial intelligence (AI) and resource-efficient lean manufacturing, states the IMechE and IET report. The global management consultancy firm McKinsey offers similar findings, saying that automation means engineers will spend more time analyzing data from Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) connected devices. The ability to interpret this data, and data gathered from both AI and machine learning, will, therefore, be in high demand.
Industry 4.0: Driving Change in Manufacturing
This trend has already begun, with Industry 4.0, in which digital technologies such as IIoT leverage data to optimize efficiency and develop new products, already a major driver of change in engineering.
Companies embracing this kind of automation are seeing benefits, including lower costs, higher quality, reduced risk and better productivity and customer satisfaction, says business process consultancy SQA.
McKinsey likewise states that a digitally enabled factory that successfully collates and analyzes data from multiple IIoT devices can achieve forecasting that is 85% more accurate and reduce machine downtime by up to 50%. It can also boost throughput by almost a third.
All this means higher productivity
All this means higher productivity. McKinsey reports that automation can lead to annual productivity gains of 2% to 3%, although it can be more. The Coca-Cola operations in Ireland, for example, began analyzing the data delivered by its IIoT devices to pinpoint opportunities for improved efficiency.
The result? The business could produce more in its existing plant and then add new products thanks to the freed-up capacity. McKinsey consultants say this led to a double digit increase in productivity.
Opportunities for SMEs in Digital Transformation
Coca-Cola may be a global manufacturing giant, but engaging with digital transformation can provide benefits to the small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) that, according to the manufacturers’ organization Make UK, account for 99% of UK manufacturing firms and 58% of manufacturing employment.
Analysis from Make UK reveals that nearly four in ten of these companies are fast growing, contributing £1 trillion to the UK economy in 2020, with the potential to become much bigger – and digital transformation can help them to scale up.
The UK’s Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), for instance, has used its electronics lab to demonstrate ways to convert an existing electronics factory into a smart factory using legacy equipment rather than costly new machinery.
“Our goal is to showcase products going through a state-of-the-art digital production line, collecting data from each station and machine, creating visibility and showing the value that can be obtained from the many uses of the data,” says Naim Kapadia, a Technology Specialist at the centre.
“Digitalization can now be achieved using interoperable standard components”
Naim Kapadia, Technology Specialist, Manufacturing Technology Centre
The Importance of Understanding the End Goal in Industry 4.0
The benefits of Industry 4.0 to businesses of all sizes mean engineers need to understand what’s involved in digital transformation and how to best manage that transition. Better understanding will also make it easier to overcome some of the problems that currently surround these technologies.
McKinsey reports that many organizations have introduced Industry 4.0 in a piecemeal manner and have failed to join the different elements together, leaving them in what the global management consultancy describes as pilot purgatory. In contrast, those organizations making the most of Industry 4.0 innovations have developed a more holistic system. “While digital transformations are notoriously difficult to scale up across networks of factories, the pressure to succeed is intense,” states the consultancy.
“Companies at the front of the pack are capturing benefits across the entire manufacturing value chain. Scaled across networks, these gains can fundamentally transform a company’s competitive position.”
To achieve this, McKinsey recommends thinking through a plan rather than jumping straight in. The best starting point for this plan, advises Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria, RS Group, is to identify the real-world problem you are trying to solve. The project must focus on tangible business needs.
“There is no value in launching a digital transformation unless you are clear on the benefit”
Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria, RS Group
“There is no value in launching a digital transformation unless you are clear on the benefit you want to achieve,” Jeffers states. “It might be around data and using IIoT to support the identification and eradication of losses.
“It might be around productivity and using robots to automate repetitive tasks. It might be around learning and development and using augmented reality to give workers access to support documentation in the workplace. But there has to be a driver!”
It’s a journey, not a destination
Understanding digital transformation in terms of a plan rather than a one-time event also helps engineers and managers to develop the mindset needed to pursue new technological opportunities as they emerge.
“Think of digital transformation… as a state of perpetual agility”
Amit Zavery, Head of Platform, Google Cloud
As Amit Zavery, Head of Platform at Google Cloud, explains it, “Think of digital transformation less as a technology project to be finished than as a state of perpetual agility, always ready to evolve for whatever customers want next, and you’ll be pointed down the right path.”
Furthermore, a plan can be useful even if an organization doesn’t have the capacity to develop a full digital strategy that will transform an entire facility. “Almost every business I visit, none of the machines are connected to a site-wide digital strategy,” says Ian Clarke, CEO of Velocumen, which advises companies on IIoT and Industry 4.0.
“I visited one such company recently. Their energy bill is £250,000 per month on a £20 million turnover and the bill has tripled in the last six months. There’s no end to the benefits that a digital transformation can bring to this business if managed correctly.”
“Start with an easy to deploy, easy win project”
Ian Clarke, CEO, Velocumen
However, while digital transformation at scale remains challenging, taking well thought out initial steps is viable. “They have committed to, and just embarked on, their connected operations journey but are struggling to get started,” notes Clarke. “But they do have a viable plan which is to build the digital infrastructure and then start with an easy to deploy, easy win project.”
Mike Wilson from the British Automation & Robot Association agrees that less ambitious steps can still provide a solid foundation for digital transformation. “Many businesses are looking for the most complex application they have, rather than the simplest job,” he told an IMechE audience. “That may be a great opportunity to install your first robot system.
“You may then find other opportunities to look at more complex applications.”
The manufacturing sector is undergoing a radical transformation with the introduction of digital technologies, known as Industry 4.0. This shift is bringing with it a range of benefits, such as increased productivity and improved opportunities for SMEs. However, engineers must be prepared to face the challenges of this transition and equip themselves with the necessary skills to manage it effectively. These skills include communication, creativity, design, and automation. With the right knowledge and expertise, engineers can ensure that the transition to Industry 4.0 is a smooth and successful one.