The Fourth Industrial Revolution: IoT and the Smart Factory

What Workforce Challenges Lie Ahead for Manufacturing?

Since the Industrial Revolution and the development of mass production through machinery, factories have made steady progress in how they automate the production of goods to improve efficiency and potential revenue generation. But with the rapidly evolving technological capabilities of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the roll-out of 5G networks, factories have the potential to take a significant step forward. Organisations across the globe are starting to develop the first generation of truly ‘smart’ factories – moving from traditional automation to fully integrated and flexible systems. These can learn from the constant stream of data which they are presented with, and adapt to new demands.

In the UK, the first 5G smart factory opened earlier this year. Developed as part of an industrial trial assessing how British factories can be modernised, the factory, owned by Bosch, has been developed as part of a Government-backed Worcestershire 5G Consortium trial and represents a significant step towards smarter factories. Fitted with sensors and 5G-based technology, which has been designed to help predict failures before they occur, the increased efficiency will be significant. And more smart factories are set to follow, with Dowty on schedule to open their new factory in Gloucester later this year, incorporating the latest ‘Brilliant Factory’ technology.

What is a ‘smart factory’?

So, aside from being one of the latest in a raft of new tech terms, what is a smart factory and why should you care?

A truly smart factory is one which integrates data from physical, operational and human sources to maximise efficiency and reduce downtime in manufacturing, maintenance, inventory tracking and other types of activities across the entire organisation. As a learning system, smart factories will also continuously evolve and develop in line with the needs of the organisation; taking into account shifting customer demands, expansion into new markets and development of new products.

Understandably, the performance improvements this technology can offer for an organisation represents a significant competitive advantage. It offers the opportunity to disrupt the marketplace, whilst other organisations continue to operate using traditional automation techniques. This represents a huge, if expensive, opportunity for those prepared to brave taking the first move.

The development of smart factories is likely to be particularly important for the UK whilst trade deals are developed with trade partners following Brexit. They could help to inject energy into stale productivity figures.

Automation versus talent

The struggle to find the right talent has not improved in the manufacturing sector. Organisations are faced with an ageing workforce that’s starting to retire and a lack of new talent interested in qualifications and training in the space, compounded by a lack of understanding about the breadth of roles available.

Investing in a smart factory is likely to remove the need for some roles. But this doesn’t mean that talent isn’t important in the smart factory. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, with humans needed to maximise the output of the robots. As Jonas Prising, Chairman and CEO of ManpowerGroup, said “Digitisation is transforming the jobs market, creating a need for people with more advanced skills in manufacturing”.

Alongside those roles which will no longer be required in smart factories, many roles will offer improved job satisfaction as a result of reduced admin (now handled by AI and automation) and an improved visibility of what is happening in the factory at any point. This will free up time for workers to engage with other, more meaningful or complex tasks. It is also likely to lead to the creation of new and unfamiliar roles, such as collaborative robotics specialists, lifecycle digital twin architects and enterprise digital ethicists (Digital Workforce Succession in Manufacturing, 2017). Employees and the technology they work with will be linked more closely together than ever before.

Unfortunately, employers are often unsure of the skills needed to work most effectively alongside this new technology, making it harder to realise the benefits of such a significant investment. Whilst planning for the development of new smart factories, it is essential that organisations and consortiums also consider the human skills they will need for the future. They need to understand where they will get the skills they need to meet new talent requirements, and how they will raise critical awareness about job vacancies at a time of high employment in the UK.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the impact of IoT on Advanced Manufacturing, why not register for our Future of IoT: Manuf-Action conference taking place on the 25th April? We’ll be joined by organisations including Dowty, UK Defence Solutions Centre and Digital Catapult.