As we move into the new era of technology, the face of manufacturing is undoubtedly undergoing a transformation that requires companies of all sizes to adapt accordingly. Industry 4.0 has brought a need for digitisation and automation along with it, which often requires upgraded plant and equipment, as well as a substantial amount of capital to fund this investment in new technology.
For larger engineering and manufacturing companies, this may not present as much of a problem. However, SMEs may struggle to raise the money they need to keep up with their competitors. Although 4IR technology is not yet a necessity, the coming years and decades will demand that manufacturers either buy into Industry 4.0 or face becoming obsolete. So, with this in mind, is there enough being done to support SMEs through the transition?
Remember - Industry 4.0 Is Scalable:
Back in June 2019, I published an article explaining that Industry 4.0 is not an all-or-nothing pursuit and that manufacturers could pick and choose their initial steps from a range of smaller investments. Simply put, 4IR technology is scalable and anything from the implementation of an ERP system through to small-scale IIOT (Industrial Internet of Things) will afford your company a range of benefits almost immediately. Complete automation will not happen overnight, but it doesn't have to - we are not yet at a point in time where the prominence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is widespread enough to expect immediate change. However, these tentative steps will pave the way for further innovation within SMEs, as and when the time is right.
Complete automation will not happen overnight - but it doesn't have to.
Conversely, the long-term view of Industry 4.0 will see a majority of engineering and manufacturing companies achieving either full or partial automation, and this is where things get expensive. Manufacturers who do not invest in 4IR technology may find themselves losing customers to their competitors, simply because they will not be able to offer the same benefits. However, there is still a lot of resistance to the notion of a smart factory as there is a false belief that robots will replace humans within the workforce; the truth behind the matter is that automation will help people work more efficiently, as well as taking away some of the more laborious everyday tasks such as paperwork.
Supporting SMEs Through Industry 4.0:
The path towards automation and smart technology can certainly feel uneasy for those who are just starting out or are used to doing things in a certain way. The cost implications of Industry 4.0 can put some companies off of starting their journey. Luckily, the UK government has recognised these challenges which is why they back the Made Smarter programme, which provides manufacturing companies with professional advice, tools and funding to help them on their way.
Made Smarter is an essential organisation for SME manufacturers to have on their radar.
Made Smarter is an essential organisation for SME manufacturers to have on their radar, simply due to the vast amount of knowledge and guidance they can offer. Although we hear about Industry 4.0 constantly, it can sometimes be difficult to understand exactly what it entails. Made Smarter can help with precisely this dilemma, as well as putting organisations in touch with experts who can offer bespoke advice on the technology to consider and the benefits on offer. In addition, Made Smarter can also offer up to 50% match funding to ease the financial strain of investment in 4IR, making this new era of technology more accessible and achievable for SMEs.
There's one major caveat, however. Made Smarter is a pilot scheme which is currently operating on a regional level, meaning that it only serves businesses within the north-west of England. Although it is expected to expand into other areas, this will, of course, take time. Nonetheless, it's worth companies outside of this area registering their interest with Made Smarter to ensure that they do not miss the boat when the programme rolls out to further afield.
'Manufacturing made smarter' was also one of the challenges the government cited when launching the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund in late 2016.
'Manufacturing made smarter' was also one of the challenges the government cited when launching the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund in late 2016. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund aimed to invest £4.7billion into R&D over four years, in a bid to strengthen UK industry. To date, it has funded projects across the country and gone some way towards increasing innovation within a number of areas. The specified need for smarter manufacturing to increase both safety and productivity within the workplace shows that this topic is definitely on the government's agenda; however, as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund only provides funding for research and development purposes, widespread funding of plant and technology for SMEs is yet to make its way to the fore.
Is There Enough Support For SMEs?
Although manufacturing companies in the north-west of England are able to benefit from advice and funding through Made Smarter, this is yet to extend across the UK meaning that a majority of SMEs are not currently able to access Industry 4.0-related resources. Made Smarter is a great programme which has been able to benefit many manufacturers on a regional scale - its success will hopefully mean that it is on course for expansion to a national level.
In the meantime, perhaps there is not yet enough call for 4IR technology funding across the country. Although we are starting to see elements of Industry 4.0 being embraced by more and more manufacturers, large-scale automation and smart factories are still far from being the norm.
As Industry 4.0 progresses, we would expect to see more support becoming available to SMEs so that UK industry is able to keep pace with the rest of the world.