Brendan Lynch highlights why 5G is the basis for a brighter future for UK factories

It is widely accepted that productivity levels in the UK are lagging behind those in Europe. According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), productivity fell by 0.4 per cent from the final quarter of last year.

Declining productivity is a key issue that the UK government is trying to tackle, with improvements to digital infrastructure featuring as a core part of the solution. The government’s digital strategy details exactly how this will work, including outlining the role that 5G will play in driving innovation and productivity.

New technologies as a solution
New technologies, including 5G, present a huge opportunity for the UK to improve national productivity, revive British industry and allow the UK to regain its position as a key player in international markets. For the manufacturing sector specifically, the introduction of 5G will enable the creation of smart factories, allowing businesses to increase their output by streamlining operations to optimise the manufacturing process from start to finish in the most cost-efficient and safe way possible.

Early predictions suggest that manufacturing firms using 5G could see as much as a 1.5 – three per cent increase in productivity. When considering that in Q1 2018, manufacturing output in the UK stood at £44.6 billion, then just a one per cent increase in output could equate to an additional £1.78 billion over the course of the year. This would hold huge benefit for the UK economy, and proves that if new technologies are strategically and effectively adopted, it is possible to make a difference to productivity levels.

Smart Factories
The manufacturing industry is in the early stages of a period of dramatic digital transformation, widely referred to as Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution. Smart manufacturing is a subset of Industry 4.0 and is defined by The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as systems that are ‘fully-integrated, collaborative manufacturing systems that respond in real time to meet changing demands and conditions in the factory, in the supply network, and in customer needs.’

As technologies like 5G become increasingly integrated with traditional manufacturing systems, the manufacturing process will become intelligent and dynamic, able to self-optimise performance and operate automatically. The deployment of 5G will allow smart factories to become a functioning reality, representing a leap forward from traditional automation to a flexible, fully connected and agile system.

The level of automation permitted by smart factories holds a multitude of benefits for the manufacturing industry, from the start to finish of the manufacturing process. Benefits include real-time linkages to customer demand forecast, reliable quality, predictable production capacity and minimised cost of production. The heightened visibility, pace of production and efficiency allowed by smart factories are key drivers that will contribute to driving higher productivity levels in manufacturing.

Introducing the hybrid engineer
As technological capabilities across the manufacturing sector continue to evolve, a different set of human skills will be needed to operate, manage and maintain the manufacturing process. In order to fully embrace the opportunities offered by Industry 4.0, the skills of the manufacturing workforce will need to adapt to incorporate advances in technology.

The industry has recognised this need and is already implementing early stage planning to bridge the gap. The Heart of Worcestershire College, for example, recently opened a Centre of Digital Engineering to ensure that students are equipped with the technological skills needed to flourish in tomorrow’s world. New courses such as these mark an improvement to links between industry and education, meaning that sourcing hybrid engineers is not just a feasible reality, but also an achievable future for young people.

The engineer of the future will need a hybrid skillset. They will need to be adept in operating the mechanical aspects of the factory and also able to understand the complex technological networks of the smart factory. Only when the nuances of both the machine and technology aspects have been mastered and the factory is being run by the ‘hybrid engineer’ can the intelligent, agile manufacturing process of the future be truly optimised.

Although the adoption of 5G in manufacturing presents a clear move towards more automated processes, it cannot be overlooked just how fundamental people still are to operations. As technology infiltrates every level of business, management teams will be burdened with the task of reviewing and realigning talent to support new processes and capabilities. Irrefutably, roles that can be replaced by robotics or AI machinery may be dispensed of, but there will be an emergence of new roles that emerge as a result of digitalisation.

In order to minimise disruption and drive innovation, organisational change management will be crucial in the migration to a digitalised, smart factory. In a time of unprecedented change, the strategic, confident and agile leadership of businesses of all sizes is more important than ever before.

Embracing the connected future
The impending roll-out of 5G presents one of the most exciting opportunities for the manufacturing sector in recent history. The development of smart factories opens the door to exponentially faster, more efficient production processes. As an industry, manufacturing sits at the cusp of a transformation and is ripe for revolution, but in order to capitalise on all the opportunities of digital, cultivation must begin soon to ensure that the most fertile environment is in place for when the technology is ready to be rolled out. With the first 5G networks due to come online next year, we need to take action now.

Cultivation doesn’t just begin and end with technology but encompasses people too. Operators must invest in building a workforce whose skills are tailor made for the smart factory and will maximise the operational efficiency of the connected factory. Before we can get Internet of Things firing on all cylinders, we need to get human intellectual capacity at its best.

5G presents an unprecedented opportunity for manufacturers to boost productivity levels and function more effectively in a rapidly shifting, highly competitive ecosystem. The manufacturing sector is spearheading innovation in the adoption of new technology for economic gain.

If organisations act now to capitalise on the 5G opportunity, they will be opening their doors to a brighter, better connected and more prosperous future.

Brendan Lynch
Brendan Lynch is a Board Member of the Worcestershire 5G Consortium. A team of 5G and Industry 4.0 experts lead this project – working with Worcestershire LEP, the Consortium comprises: Worcestershire County Council, 5GIC at University of Surrey, AWTG, Huawei, O2, BT and Malvern Hills Science Park. With local businesses Worcester Bosch, and Yamazaki Mazak it will focus on ways to increase industrial productivity through preventative and assisted maintenance using robotics, big data analytics and AR over 5G.