When it comes to engineering and manufacturing, however, there are some things we can say with greater certainty. Experts and industry leaders dedicate much of their time to finding new solutions, and assessing how they will be used in the years to come.
The latest Engineering Futures week – The Technology Shaping the Future – was held online last week by Professional Engineering, with an assembled group of industry experts explaining some of the challenges and opportunities in the years to come.
Here are five of their predictions and lessons from the sessions, which are now available to view on-demand.
1. Leadership will be key as digitalisation accelerates
The last 40 years has seen huge change in sectors such as manufacturing and construction. The shift from pencil and paper to CAD designs was just the start of an all-encompassing journey, said Mohamed Abdelhak from Autodesk as he started his session titled “Digitalisation: The How, Why & What”.
That journey has greatly accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic, Abdelhak said. 97% of B2B (business-to-business) buyers are happy with a fully digital process, for example. “Covid has forced people to realise what can be achieved across a screen,” he said.
Digitalisation programmes will only be successful if they are led from the top, however. “Transformation really needs to be driven from the top. Executive-level buy-in isn’t enough... what is really needed is executive leadership,” he said.
2. Industry 4.0 is about to get more joined up
Food production is a sector ripe for greater automation, said Ian Clarke, owner and founder of Velocumen Ltd during “Where Next for Automation and Digitalisation?”
The next five years will also see an increase of automation in “conventional” manufacturing industries, he said. Current Industry 4.0 projects are often too fragmented, he said, and not massively different to previous initiatives.
Companies often struggle to “glue in" automation of procurement and the supply chain end, he said, but he predicted more “true Industry 4.0” projects in the coming years as firms link up more processes throughout the product lifecycle.
3. Companies ‘will see benefits of automation straight away’
In many aspects, the composites industry hasn’t reached Industry 3.0, let alone Industry 4.0, said Joe Summers from Composites UK and Airborne UK during “Industry 4.0 and Automation in Composites Manufacturing”.
The journey is “pretty tough, pretty long,” he said, but it can bring big benefits for many composites companies. Flexibility, productivity, and speed can all come from greater insight into manufacturing processes, he said.
When will companies see the benefits of automation? “My instinct would be to say straight away,” he said. Most customers target a two- to three-year return on investment (ROI), however.
4. Starting simple is a recipe for automation success
There is a lack of clarity over the benefits of automation, said Mike Wilson from BARA during “Building Back Better – How Automation could Help the Recovery of the UK”. New users lack knowledge and expertise, there is concern over costs, and risk assessments need to be done properly.
“Many businesses are looking for the most complex application they have, rather than the simplest job... that may be a great opportunity to install your first robot system,” he said. “You may then find other opportunities to look at more complex applications.”
BARA provides support, he said, with online how-to guides and pointers to independent consultants.
5. Small-scale manufacturing is on the rise
Technology specialist Naim Kapadia has led the Smart Factory for Electronics Manufacturing project at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry, which has industry-leading members such as Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Siemens. The centre’s ‘mini-factory’ offers electronics manufacturing capabilities.
“Over the last three years, the members’ interest has grown significant,” he said. “What we’ve found is that most of what we’re doing, if we can do it here in this process, it’s all transferable to other areas of the business.”
He added: “Our role has been mainly around how we can take this to the next level, help users understand what the art of the possible is.”
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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.