Smart Machines & Factories
A clear vision
Published:  06 July, 2017

The new All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution – known as APPG 4IR - was launched recently by Havant MP Alan Mak and his guest of honour, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. Smart Machines & Factories attended the launch and reviews some of the main talking points from the event and examines the underlying issues.

Both Alan Mak and his guest of honour, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, appeared to have a clear vision of what they want to achieve in terms of 4IR – but what exactly will the process of modernising the UK’s manufacturing industry to make it 4.0-ready entail? And what will the main difficulties be?

First of all, it’s important to establish the APPG’s objectives according to its Chairman. Alan Mak, when questioned on this by Smart Machines & Factories, expressed his desire to have it edified in policy: “The Chancellor has already backed the APPG by launching the group in Parliament and announcing investment in robotics, artificial intelligence, science, and research in both the 2016 Autumn Statement and 2017 Spring Budget”, he continued: “Our next step is to ensure that the 4IR is at the heart of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, which will be published later this year…”

Mak’s own interest in the Fourth Industrial Revolution stems from his constituency of Havant, which has what he describes as a “proud manufacturing and engineering heritage” in addition to being “home to leading businesses”. It’s through visiting and seeing these first-hand that his “interest in their role future-proofing our economy grew”.

Moving on to the key speeches of the launch, both Mak and the Chancellor highlighted Britain’s role as the progenitor of modern industry followed by its subsequent decline. The former often raised the idea of the UK “leading the race” and “becoming a world leader”, while Hammond criticised the country missing out on “big step changes in technology”.

“I don’t think anybody’s got any doubt about Britain’s track record of achievements in science and innovation” he said. “They’ve propelled our small island nation first to being a great global power and more recently to being a centre of innovation in the world.

“There are lots of inventions and discoveries that we all know came from Britain but sadly in the last hundred years or so we’ve mostly seen developed, commercialised, exploited, and taxed elsewhere in the world”.

The Chancellor may be referring to the fact that the UK has arguably failed to invest in and make the most of its outstanding domestic innovation, thus allowing other countries to move in and fill the vacuum to exploit the resources available. One such example is the “wonder material” graphene – a Nobel prize-winning discovery by two scientists based in Manchester for which research funding is dwindling. In the context of Brexit, a further £1 million a year will be lost by the country’s departure from the EU.

What this means for Industry 4.0 is that – in theory – when there are UK-based discoveries and innovations in the field, instead of not supplying the additional funding needed or only giving a minimal amount, the government has to be prepared to provide the necessary infrastructure to support it. This was something the Chancellor mentioned frequently.

“The challenge, it seems to me, is first of all keeping Britain at the leading industrial edge, making sure our industries work with our academic institutions and research bodies to keep on developing the technology itself” he said. “But also, to make sure that we are able to commercialise innovation”.

That is a fundamental issue surrounding the Fourth Industrial Revolution, so it’s a major positive to see it being mentioned. As Hammond said, the UK is being presented with “an opportunity to shift the productivity paradigm decisively in our favour” – we can use this fresh start to establish Britain as a manufacturing powerhouse of the 21st Century and beyond.

However, in order to do that, we need to go back to that word “infrastructure”. Without the right framework, British research won’t be able to build on its successes and transform innovation into genuine, tangible industrial strength. There are several elements to this framework – as the Chancellor said:

“We’ve got to create and maintain a pro-business, pro-innovation environment. That means making sure that Britain remains the best place in the world to start and grow a tech business…we want to have a regulatory environment which is resolutely - aggressively even - pro-innovation”.

Included in this was the government’s desire to “leverage private investment” through the use of public money as “seed corn”, thus ensuring “future prosperity”. This is vital to the UK’s active involvement in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as it will alleviate the financial burden of investment funding. Once there is a proven technology to be exploited, the private interest will come.

What other concrete policy promises will see this through? Hammond mainly referred back to the “£23 billion national productivity investment fund” from last year’s Autumn Statement, “£2 billion of public investment in R&D by 2020”, an “industrial strategy challenge fund”, and the Spring Budget announcement of “a thousand new PhD places”.

Those PhD places in particular are a point of interest, as education had a noteworthy mention in the Spring Budget. £500m a year was allocated to 16-19 technical education with a 50% rise in the training provided from 2019. In addition, 15 new “world-class routes” of “equal value to A-Levels” were announced – although the reaction to that was not overwhelmingly positive.

The main objections focused on the fact that while the new, streamlined vocational routes for those pursuing a career in a profession such as engineering are touted as being of equal value, what really needs to be tackled is the perception of alternatives to A-Levels.

Young people and their parents need to have a firm conviction in the ability of vocational training to deliver a long and fulfilling career. As the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ (IMechE) head of education and skills, Peter Finegold said: “The challenge will be in how to attract young people and their parents to the value of technical training, in areas such as engineering, in the first place.

“Our schools focus on a narrow set of academic success indicators and are largely staffed by teachers who have little experience of industry. Parents remain fearful that a technical education is a second-class option”.

This demands an important cultural shift in the attitude towards engineering and an understanding that those in the profession will be dealing with some of the most critical issues on both a national and international scale. Ultimately, we can’t just expect to pour money into this and hope for the best – there needs to be a concerted effort to establish the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the heart of this country’s economy and education. Being a part of its progress should be an ambition for young engineers of the future.

Ultimately, only time will tell with policies and plans surrounding what is arguably one of the biggest long-term projects for manufacturing in many countries. Should we fully commit to ‘4IR’, it will need to be a comprehensive and thorough effort.

Helping society to adjust to this new world of production and engineering will be essential to this effort, and the Chancellor had some strong words on this subject: “As one area of human activity is rendered redundant, other areas are created, and the kind of technical revolution that we’re on the brink of will create as many jobs as it destroys.

“Some predict that two-thirds of the jobs that children entering primary school today will do during their lifetimes are not even jobs that currently exist. That presents huge challenges for us in the future”.

He essentially highlights some valid concerns that technology will render human jobs obsolete, as has already happened many times throughout history. The Chancellor offered a healthy view of the problem – he seems to understand that the pragmatic approach is to accept that while some roles may be irreversibly destroyed, those entering the engineering profession in future will be better equipped. They will be able to adapt to a range of positions and functions within the smart manufacturing workplace.

Overall there were a lot of positive vibes from Philip Hammond and it was good to see an interest in the future of Industry 4.0 in Britain from such a prominent government figure. As always only time will tell how things evolve – but overall the APPG 4IR launch is an extremely positive development and will inevitably play an increasingly important role in the UK’s transformation to a smart manufacturing era