In the limelight: April 2019

April 2, 2019

Alison Cowie looks at the Fourth Industrial Revolution and asks how the North East should prepare for this new cyber-physical era

The Fourth Industrial Revolution – also known as Industry 4.0 – is set to blur the lines between the physical and digital by utilising emerging technologies such as AI, VR, robotics, big data, cyber-physical systems, automation and the Internet of Things.

The benefits, Professor Alistair Irons, academic dean for the faculty of technology at the University of Sunderland, says that “we’re going to be in a much leaner, much more cost-effective, productive environment.

“We’ll be manufacturing products that customers want when they need them. There’s going to be a lot less waste.”

As a region, the North East has flourished in previous industrial revolutions, so how can we prepare for Industry 4.0?

“We need to be the centre of excellence in sustainable advanced manufacturing,” says Professor Irons. “This means embracing smart factories and a smarter supply chain.”

Adopting smarter technologies – especially for manufacturers that have relied on traditional methods for a generation – is no easy task. The Digital Catapult North East and Tees Valley (NETV) – one of three regional centres for innovation in the UK – is helping to bridge this gap by encouraging partnerships between manufacturers and the region’s tech community.

Naomi Morrow, head of innovation and lead at Digital Catapult (NETV), says: “Manufacturers realise that they need to become more agile and tech start-ups can help by offering innovative solutions.”

Digital Catapult NETV has recently helped County Durham manufacturer, Dyer Engineering, to work with innovative tech start-ups to explore the possibilities of the Internet of Things and low-powered wide area networks in their operations.

The Catapult has also helped a Manchester textile business to link up with a Gateshead tech company to incorporate AI technology.

“These are just two examples of exciting and mutually beneficial partnerships,” says Naomi. “By encouraging more, it will help raise the North East’s profile as a place that solves challenges around Industry 4.0.”

Of course, alongside any significant change there are potential negatives as well as benefits.

Perhaps the biggest perceived threat is the impact of automation on jobs.

Both Professor Irons and Naomi recognise that Industry 4.0 is set to affect people’s work lives.

“There are potential issues around redundancies if things automate to a great extent,” says Professor Irons. “But it’s no different to what we’ve seen in the last 30-40 years in computing.”

He continues: “Engineering skills, advanced manufacturing skills and digital skills are all going to come into play and the demands on education are going to be much higher. School, colleges, universities and businesses must step up to get folks interested in STEM subjects and to retrain the existing workforce in the skills that are required.”

Naomi adds: “There’s a lot of scaremongering about the impact of Industry 4.0 on people’s jobs but it’s important we keep an open mind. Potentially, it’ll mean that people will have a lot more job satisfaction.”

Professor Irons also highlights potential legal, ethical and cybersecurity issues around this new era of production. He also believes North East must build the required physical and digital infrastructure to cope with the demands of Industrial 4.0 – which could require considerable investment.

“Rather than negatives we should think of these as challenges that need to be addressed as we move into this different environment,” Professor Irons adds.

Naomi and Professor Irons also agree that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not limited to manufacturing – with the services industry also set to be massively impacted by emerging technologies.

The risk to the North East for not preparing for these changes? “We’d be left behind,” Professor Irons warns. “Other areas are going to be playing in this space – whether that’s in the North West, the Midlands – in Latvia – or wherever. If we’re not careful they will steal a march on us.

“We must make sure that the manufacturing and the services industry base – and the whole employment structure in the North East – are up-to-speed and we’re pushing boundaries.

“The North East should be the leading light when it comes to Industry 4.0.”