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Article | by Alan Cooper
The International Business Festival attracts a high number of attendees across the spectrum of industries, countries and business types, but it also is significant enough to get some highly influential speakers, personalities, broadcasters, politicians and even HRH Prince William on the opening day.
Each day focuses on a different sector of industry, I chose the Manufacturing day (here’s the programme) which, as with the other sectors, has a selection of speakers and topics across the 3 stages and other exhibitor areas of the conference. I spent most of my time in the Futures Hub, as the sessions were most applicable to me understanding current and future trends in manufacturing and engineering.
Here are my highlights from the day:
Image from Daily Mail
....but not without challenges in recruitment, competition, Brexit, skills shortages. It’s a long way from the image of grimy factory floors and downtrodden component makers at the end of a procurement-heavy supply chain
Majority female panels, senior female and minority groups were all represented at the very highest level of traditionally male-dominated organisations. And the better for it.
One of the presentation titles was ‘Extra Terrestrial Manufacturing’. That may just be my favourite slide title ever.
‘Creativity’ has a job to do to break through the misconception of it as a fluffy discipline, and to be recognised as the driving force - the ‘Brains Trust’- behind a strong manufacturing base.
My day (not THE day, M6 put paid to that) started with Simon Jack, BBC Business Editor, giving a concise and insightful look into the current and future state of Manufacturing in the UK.
He covered, unsurprisingly, Brexit, tariffs and other political impacts on the UK Manufacturing sector. HIs take, somewhat reassuring, is that whilst interruptive and frustrating, we should push on past these ‘distractions’ (sic). Quality products will sell irrespective of trade barriers and tariffs. And the UK is well placed, via reputation and manufacturing quality. “Quality and innovation is more important than Trade deals.”
Simon then chaired an impressive panel comprising Innovate UK, Try and Lilly, High Value Manufacturing Catapult and Siemens.
Of the many interesting messages coming out of this panel (‘chapeau’ IBF for making it long enough to encourage robust discussion and debate) a few resonated with me;
Both big and small manufacturers, aided by the government bodies, are looking at innovation that comes in small, nimble packages, not just large-scale industrial disruption and cognitive assembly lines.
It’s broad, too, embracing know how and the ‘brains trust’ not just plant, machinery and processes. Siemens, for example, are digitising their workflow, which speeds up design, often overlooked in favour of the more tangible business process change.
Innovate UK have a broad remit to look at the service side of manufacturing, including marketing, not just ‘making stuff’. I liked that bit, that’s where we are seeing the toughest challenges. Lots of effort being put into digitalisation of the workplace, streamlining and speeding up, but the impact on the outside customer is frequently relegated and often not communicated at all in the business proposition. [hint; that’s where we come in!]
There’s a disconnect too with the transition from education into industry; AI graduates aren’t looking at Engineering or Manufacturing, lured by the software, Fintech and creative industries. There’s still a mindset shift to make, and that includes the residual gender and ethnic minority gaps which are shifting but only slowly.
However, some work is taking place in diversity in education, where, for example, in Sheffield the High Value Catapult is taking lower socio-economic background students, training them to get to degree level outside of University, and shifting the low trajectory earnings profile that’s traditionally the case.
As you might expect there was a lot made of Digitisation, and most of the acronyms and labels were applied liberally; Industry 4.0, Digital Transformation, robotic automation….
But for me, the key was in how to harness ‘digital’, not let it run away unfettered. Use digital as an aide to productivity not as a replacement. The panel was celebrating production coming back to UK, through Inward investment, high value technologies, advanced manufacturing. Critically keeping the intellectual, design and business ‘brains’ close to manufacturing was seen as more efficient, and fostering greater innovation, than separating via offshore production.
This thought extended to robotisation of the workplace, and a strongly held view that (for example) fault identifying in, say, the food industry doesn’t mean robots, it means more effective service levels. Better products lasting longer, quicker servicing, proactive fault remedy. Look wider than the immediate benefit of connected and cognitive automated devices.
There were other key takeaways from the sessions I attended;
In ‘Thinking Like an Engineer, delivered powerfully by Dr Hayaatun Sillum, CEO Royal Academy of Engineering we learnt about the 59,ooo industry shortfall every year in Engineers, and the challenges of the resulting skills gap. They’re recruiting aggressively, targeting ever younger prospects and tying in how the digital world of 14-18 yr olds is relevant to futures in Engineering.
There’s clearly an issue as the UK is spending typically half of what EU countries do on continual development. That’s got to be worrying in the light of a highly likely reduction in movement between the EU and UK. Do I hear Brain Drain?
We saw a fascinating illustration of how fast the Engineering world is moving; the Carlson Curve, for example, which charts the pace of development of DNA sequencing, makes Moores Law look like a 1904 Ford, complete with red flag, by comparison.
What that means is that new technologies - particularly in the bio sciences - will become faster, cheaper, better and ultimately commonplace, so being at the head of the curve (if not ahead of it) is important.
The final takeout from this presentation was that ‘Creativity’ has become the domain of the creative industries - for which read the Arts, media, marketing. There’s clearly work to be done here - and another mind shift as the ‘brains trust’ will require more creativity in manufacturing, software, workplace and process design, not just the fluffy part.
From the ‘fluffy’ side of the industries perceptive (well,mine at least) I think we also have a job to do here. We see our own industry make the shift from creative as a pure discipline within design to a multifaceted role. Current Creative Directors need to be part technical, part media, part UX, part audience as well as 100% design!
I was happily writing notes for the majority of the sessions until I was stopped in my tracks by the bestest slide title I’ve ever seen;
So I have no notes to rely on to write up the most mind-blowing part of the presentation, as I was completely absorbed by this.
So they send industrial 3D printers to the moon to 3D print smaller 3D printers to 3D print walls and buildings out of moon dust. And wait. The next slide actually said Martian rocks. Yes, by 2030 they’re building places on Mars for us to live/work in. And there’s not a foreman or spade in sight.
Image from Tested.com
This wasn’t some kind of ‘wouldn’t it be fun to put this presentation in amongst the serious stuff’, this was for real and the presentations and panel were discussing the challenges of payload, how to get the additive materials to mix with the native rocks and dust.
I was absorbed, to the extent that I don’t have a single note, link, but I do have a lasting impression of a staggering future industry requiring every last drop of professionalism, skill, quality, innovation and resilience that the UK et al has to offer, and I want to be part of it.
3D Printing on the MOON (!!!)
So I’d heartily recommend the IBF next time around in 2020, by which time hopefully you’ll be able to teleport. If not, steer well clear of the M6, whatever your SatNav tells you…
There are still 3 more days to go next week, featuring Health and Life Sciences, Creative Industries and Sport, Culture and Travel. If they’re your sectors, I’d make your way to Liverpool.