As the digital revolution in manufacturing gathers pace, Lucy Pamment from supply chain software specialist, Access Group, debunks some of the myths surrounding it.
So much has been written about Industry 4.0 (more than 3.5million Google results and counting) that it's easy to lose sight of why it matters to smaller plastics manufacturers.
Weighty whitepapers on artificial intelligence, data analytics, the cloud and cyber-physical systems often do little to persuade production managers further down the supply chain that their investment in technology will pay off. Furthermore, if the components or coatings they produce are in high demand, what incentive do they have to overhaul operations? For some, the old adage, ‘If it ain't broke, why fix it?' may well spring to mind.
But, for Tier 3 and 4 manufacturers at least, Industry 4.0 is less about factories resembling something from a sci-fi film, and more about the processes they can put in place to demonstrate compliance, traceability and quality assurance for every material, part and product. Using supply chain software, managers are able to prove who signed something off and when, ensuring they don't get stung if issues arise further up the supply chain.
Where price is a barrier to technology adoption, it's worth thinking about the commercial cost of not deploying it. No matter how in-demand certain plastic components are, one of the key things Tier 1 manufacturers now look for is transparency from their immediate suppliers and the ones below. It means that, sooner or later, production managers will have to weigh up the cost of not investing in technology with that of losing, or failing to secure, valuable contracts.
At the recent Industry 4.0 Summit, the global professional services company Accenture suggested that £245bn (€280m) is now at risk across seven manufacturing industries, including construction, food and drink and aerospace, if companies do not harness digital technology.
We should remember too that, unlike some bespoke software of previous years, manufacturers are able to choose pre-configured software that offers a rapid return, and then scale up as they grow.
Questions about whether the workforce will need new skills – or they'll need another more tech-savvy team – to operate these systems can be another reason why SMEs are reluctant to move towards digitalisation. However, in most cases, employees would only be required to access and update production information via a touchscreen or drag-and-drop function, in the same way they use their mobile phone or tablet at home. There's also no need to employ a chief technical officer, as new tech is fully-supported by the software provider.
The UK plastics industry is full of dynamic, adaptable and thriving SMEs working across a diverse range of industries, yet it is also highly competitive. If manufacturers want to retain their advantage, particularly following Brexit, they'll need every tool at their disposal, otherwise they'll quickly lose out to firms with leaner and more transparent operations.
Also see Industry 4.0 User Manual For SMEs.