Britain looks to the 4th Industrial Revolution to lead the world in manufacturing
Whilst the UK has been an industrial leader for decades, shifting trends in manufacturing has meant that the UK’s total output has been overtaken by several countries across the globe.
Rocked by national and international issues in recent years like Brexit and Covid-19, it would seem that the future of UK manufacturing would be bleak but by adopting new technology infrastructures and adapting those already in place, some are predicting that the UK can once again place itself at the helm of global manufacturing.
This move to digital and automatic processes has been coined by many as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and is where much of the optimism of British manufacturing lies.
Twinfix is a UK-based manufacturer of polycarbonate roofing with strong traditional values and has seen a significant shift to digitisation in recent years.
“The human element of our company is something we massively value. The attention to detail, the human control that really ensures the quality of what we produce”, said joint-MD Vicky Evans.
With a laser focus on employee culture and involvement, Twinfix’s manufacturing process has been largely a manual process, which has taken more time but as Evans points out, ensures high quality products like their Multi-Link Panel and canopies.
As the business grew, Twinfix began to look into ways of introducing digital and automated solutions into their manufacturing process.
“We started on that digital journey of recognising the need to improve some of the older techniques that we have been using”, said Evans. “We were early adopters of 3D printers and BIM (building information modelling) software, that was probably the start of our digital initiatives. Although traditionally rooted, we’ve always been forward thinking in our approach to modern technology.”
This digital journey was hastened by the Covid-19 pandemic and the social implications that came with it.
“We started to properly look into how we could streamline our processes and make the first stages of digital working,” said Evans.
A year later, Twinfix is now working with computer design software Autodesk as a way of improving the way their roofing canopies and Multi-Link-Panels are drawn up.
“Beforehand, a lot of our drawings were done manually, there was a lot of spreadsheets, duplications, and time spent. We’re now looking at how we can draw our canopies once and then send that directly to our factory machines for manufacture”, said Evans. “The way we dealt with Covid is testament to how we want to develop over the next thirty years. In so many ways, it’s been a springboard for the digitalisation that we want to maintain and how we’ve coped with the worst situation that probably the world has seen in a while.”
Another facet of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is an adoption of artificial intelligence, something which the UK is seemingly well-prepared for. The UK is the largest AI market in Europe with investment in 2018 nearing a billion pounds (£998m).
This investment is supported by a robust high-speed connectivity network which has widespread implications in revolutionising areas of manufacturing such as predictive maintenance and faster design. The 2018 Artificial Intelligence Sector Deal signalled a clear intention from the UK government that they plan on remaining at the forefront of AI development with plans for improving and sustaining the supply of AI skills and R&D funding.
Smaller manufacturers knowing the benefits of AI is a major obstacle to tackle in the race to its overall adoption, as many companies like Twinfix have a largely human element to their manufacturing process.
“We recognise the real potential for AI in the future when it comes to efficiency. There will be roles that can be better done when automated, but we also want to ensure that the human touch to Twinfix doesn’t go anywhere so it’ll be up to us to pick the right areas to automate and which should remain more traditional.”
Max Debae of Capital NDT wants to challenge the widespread concern of AI reducing the number of manual jobs in construction.
“AI in fact has the opposite effect. [It] has the ability to recognise labour shortage, allowing companies to better plan for the distribution of labour and machinery across projects where it is most needed”, Debae said. “Overall, this will increase the number of jobs in construction and further improve construction’s economic impact on the UK economy.”
Recent data shows that over the next twenty years, AI is predicted to increase the number of UK construction jobs by over 10%. With this in mind, if the UK industrial sector continues to invest in R&D, spread further awareness to smaller manufacturers like Twinfix, take advantage of its robust existing framework, and continue on its digital pathway, it’s clear to see how the UK can secure its place as a leading manufacturer of the world once again.