Ones to watch: electric vehicles, intelligent workplaces and next-gen robots

There’s been a lot of flux in the UK manufacturing industry. We have seen the positives of emerging technologies, a renewed commitment to the government’s Industrial Strategy and the CBI reporting the industry ended last year on a high with strong orders on the book. However, automation of jobs has left workers in many industries feeling nervous about the future and we saw output fall unexpectedly in February, the first decline in almost a year.

So, what should manufacturers be focusing on now? We have identified three areas where we expect to see the most investment and change:

More commitment to electric vehicles

Sweden, The Netherlands, France and Germany have made the most investment in electric vehicles (EV) in Europe, with each aiming to be 100 per cent electric, some as soon as 2030. Meanwhile, in the UK, the government pledged £500 million investment in the November Budget to help make electric vehicles more affordable for consumers. Things are headed in the right direction and increased focus in several areas will help momentum.

To meet these targets, there needs to be a strong sourcing strategy in place for batteries and energy storage, whilst also building a greater charging infrastructure across the country. Traditional combustion engine manufacturing processes need to be repurposed for EV. Since internal combustion engines require a different type of technical and mechanical engineering design skillset to electric motor based design, reskilling is also important. Employers are not the only ones who need to retrain staff; the whole learning process now needs to start a lot earlier – universities and schools also need to change their curriculum to accommodate this shift.

More focus on intelligent workplaces

The Fourth Industrial Revolution requires new skills in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence and data analysis. However, research often highlights that the UK industry is suffering from a shortage of these skills, which has contributed to the sluggish productivity of last year. Getting to grips with these skills will be important in changing the UK manufacturing industry’s prospects. While there has already been a lot of effort put into building proof of concepts for new technologies in manufacturing processes, in the second half of 2018, we will start to see integration, such as voice-based analysis systems and robotics, really ramp up. Once this happens, there will be an evolution of intelligent factories built on several layers of technologies working in unison and handled by a workforce with new skills.

Building on the core manufacturing systems, such as ERP and PLM, more sensor technology needs to be adopted to measure aspects, such as temperature, which could impact productivity and processes, whilst voice-based integrated analysis systems will make processes increasingly seamless and curb downtime, by drilling down into collected data and spotting potential issues. Technologies such as co-bots, 3D printing, blockchain, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will create a truly digital workforce and environment. Use of an overarching platform will also be essential to help make sense of the data being collected by technologies, systems and connected products, to improve the end-products delivered.

More integration of next generation robotics

The Made Smarter review of British manufacturing argues that digital technologies such as automation could give the sector a significant boost and create thousands of new jobs. Indeed, our own‘21 jobs of the future’ whitepaper outlines the new roles we expect to emerge over the next 10 years thanks to such disruptive technologies, including man-machine teaming manager.

While we are sure to see more investment in robotics from companies over the next year, simple investment is not enough. Beyond a solid technical foundation, manufacturers should consider a range of strategic factors to integrate next-generation robots into their overall plans. Introducing autonomous units that can think and interact with a wider ecosystem requires re-evaluation of workplace structure. Manufacturers should conduct ergonomic studies to envision how experienced, skilled humans could work on a task with smart robots. They should also start small and scale up deployments gradually. While it is easy to get caught up in the hype of robotics, moving at this pace will ensure companies remain aligned with key business priorities.

In the future, it will become important for organisations to incentivise and reward continuous learning to encourage humans to know how to interact and work alongside intelligent machines. As the ‘21 jobs of the future’ whitepaper revealed, new jobs will appear thanks to automation, while the traditional ones remaining will be enhanced. Setting up a Centre of Excellence can help manufacturers pilot, manage, report on and champion the role of automation across the business. Such is the complexity of automation; robotics programmes are intertwined with far too many systems for any single company to build or supply a complete solution. To solve this, we will see more manufacturers participating in a cross-industry ecosystem of partners to pool expertise, which could include designers, strategic advisors, systems integrators and academic researchers.

Author profile:
Prasad Satyavolu, is chief digital officer – manufacturing and logistics at Cognizant