Smart Machines & Factories
Grasping 4IR opportunities
Published:  30 October, 2018

The recent Smart Machines & Factories 4IR survey, supported by GAMBICA and EEF, and sponsored by Festo GB, highlights that some manufacturers are already grasping 4IR opportunities, but others are still to take their first steps on their journey.

It is evident the industrial sector uptake of new digital technologies will be central to a successful post-Brexit future, improving our national productivity, creating higher value jobs, and arming our workforce with the digital skills required in the decades ahead.

Although some British businesses have begun to see the significant advantages that can be realised through smart manufacturing, and are actively investing and beginning to adapt to this new vision, there has been continuing debate over how prepared the UK is to take advantage of these new opportunities.

In order to find out, Smart Machines & Factories magazine recently conducted a major survey supported by GAMBICA and the EEF - The Manufacturers’ Organisation, and sponsored by Festo GB, to identify the UK’s readiness to take advantage of this technological change.

Manufacturing professionals from across the engineering spectrum were asked a series of questions examining perceptions, attitudes, and business readiness in relation to 4IR to help identify how prepared and advanced the UK is with implementing a Smart strategy.

Ultimately, the results of the survey aim to help contribute to the 4IR debate to establish what more needs to be done to adapt to a highly digitalised future, and benefit from the economic opportunities this brings.

Madeleine Scott, senior policy researcher at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said the survey results showed a similar picture to EEF’s own recent research that was highlighted in its factcard ‘How 4IR is transforming manufacturing productivity’.

The Smart Machines & Factories survey highlights that some manufacturers are already grasping 4IR opportunities, but others are still to take their first steps on their journey: “Companies are both aware of, and investing in, 4IR but it is clear that we are still some way off a majority engaged in adoption.”

She explains that 4IR technologies are vital to achieving a step change in UK manufacturing productivity given performance has flat-lined in the decade since the financial crisis, and firms are recognising this will be an outcome of 4IR incorporation into their business.


Key findings from survey:

How would you describe your level of knowledge of Industry 4.0?

Only 25% of respondents (the majority of whom are manager/ director/ owner level) feel they have a comprehensive knowledge of Industry 4.0.

Steve Sands, marketing and product manager for Festo GB, and sponsor of the survey, commented that this means the massive quantity of information that has been put out over the last two years hasn’t adequately informed and possibly even confused responders: “While a lot of the noise in the market has been made by potential suppliers there have also been more business and authoritative reports by financial institutions, researchers and the Government initiated Made Smarter Review, but its clear these just haven’t cut through to this audience.”

The survey highlights that while suppliers can and should be communicating there needs to be a clearer, non-biased and authorative narrative that helps businesses understand and engage with the changes that are happening. This has to come with a unified voice.

Does your business currently have a strategy in place to implement Industry 4.0 into your business?

More than 75% of responders’ businesses don’t have a digitalisation strategy in place. However more encouragingly, of these, ¼ feel they are developing a strategy. However, does this imply not enough companies have a documented change strategy or just that Industry 4.0 hasn’t impacted on their plans?

With an abundance of messages readily available regarding the advances in digitalisation, it is unlikely they have been missed. Therefore the results of this question suggests the impact isn’t perceived to relate to their business or there is scepticism regarding the claims that are being made.

Unfortunately, this could well be the case. It is hard to pick up a trade publication without seeing claims regarding a sensor or HMI claiming to be Industry 4.0. At the other end of the technology spectrum it can be hard for managers to understand the impact on their business of Artificial Intelligence or Blockchain technologies.

We can only hope that as understanding grows, spurious claims will be revealed and the relevance of more advanced technologies will be illustrated with case studies and pilot applications. Demonstrators in Catapult centres, showcase factories and lighthouse applications will improve the ability of decision makers to relate to these technologies.

Which of these business areas will be impacted by your 4IR strategies?

One of the most surprising conclusions for this question was that less than 10% of responders see an impact on Human Resources. Does this mean HR doesn’t have a strategic role in the shaping of the workforce for the future or the potential impact on skills, demographics and a changing workplace haven’t been appreciated? Where HR is strategic they need to be advising the company about the changes they foresee and how they will ensure their workforce is preparing for change.

Sands say: “We have already seen this influence in a few major end user companies but there are clearly many other companies where there are many more opportunities.”

What is your company's main priority for the adoption of 4IR technologies and techniques?

The results for this question were inconclusive, further illustrating the confusion about how to create a digitalisation strategy. Is it possible to identify the opportunities coming out of digitalisation either from a top down approach – what new threats and opportunities do these technology developments offer me or bottom up, what existing targets or problems can the technology solve for me? Revolution or Evolution?

Ultimately, will sectors of manufacturing be turned on its head by a digitally based servitisation model that didn’t previously exist the way AirBnB or Uber have impacted their sectors?

How will incorporating 4IR into your business, impact your business?

The biggest single response was increased competitiveness and it is implied this will come from increased productivity. This shows the strong links to LEAN, OEE and TEEP (improved availability, performance and quality + utilisation) and the ways that new technology can support these factors.

Which of the following are barriers to your company adopting 4IR new technologies and techniques?

The clear message here is that it will be the business culture and employee skills that will hold companies back. GAMBICA’s Montag also said that lack of money wasn’t a significant barrier to adoption and the survey reflects this view.

Unfortunately concerns over skills and business cultures are issues without quick fixes but instead require a clear strategy. The arguably interesting observation that it is a lot easier to get machines talking to one another than people needs to be fixed with clear leadership and good change management. The first steps, according Steve Sands, may well be to engage and inform the workforce, to identify pilots that can prove the business case and help identify the potential pitfalls. But without a vision and starting on the journey it is hard to see how many UK companies will reap the benefits of digitalisation faster than their global competitors. This could be a big threat or an opportunity depending upon how government and industry work together in the next couple of years.


Victoria Montag, sector head for Industrial Automation at GAMBICA, commented: “The results of this survey are of high value to GAMBICA and its members. It’s important to understand the drivers for and the barriers to adoption of digital technologies into manufacturing processes.”

She explained that it was felt that the UK was behind many other developed countries in terms of adoption of automation, but added we can avoid history repeating itself if we know where manufacturing is heading with 4IR and what we need to do to take it forward.

Although Montag highlights that comprehension around 4IR is definitely becoming stronger compared to even a year ago, she emphasises there is more educating to be done. She also believes that when people stop using “Industry 4.0” and “4th Industrial Revolution” and start to describe what is happening - “digitalising manufacturing” - then digitalisation may become more accessible. A lot of the conversation up until now has been around “what” 4IR is, and Montag explains that the message now needs to be focussed around “how”. “How” does a manufacturer start its digitalisation process? “How” does a manufacturer decide what to prioritise? “How” does an organisation ensure they have the skills to make the most of the technology available to them etc.

The answers to these questions are fundamental as both UK manufacturing and Government know that a digital future is not a case of if, but when. Prioritising the rapid digitalisation of UK manufacturing and the economy as a whole, and ensuring innovation is supported, sits at the heart of improving our overall competitiveness, making the most of the new technology opportunity, creating better living standards and setting the foundations for a more vibrant future for the next generation.

The recent survey conducted by Smart Machines & Factories has ultimately highlighted that there are continuing barriers to adoption evident in relation to skills, culture and awareness all having an effect on UK manufacturers investing in 4IR. And although Madeleine Scott says there has been some positive progress from government in areas such as plans for delivering the full fibre digital infrastructure that 4IR will depend on, policy progress is still needed such as waiting for sign off of the Industrial Digitalisation Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund bid alongside the long awaited announcement on the Made Smarter Commission.