Industry 4.0 in a Post-Covid World: A UEA Deakin University Collaborative Event

The fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0 is one of the hottest topics in industry and education around now. Industry 4.0 technologies have arisen from a new era of fast-paced digital advancements and includes the gathering and analysing of data, enabling faster, more efficient processes to produce higher-quality goods at reduced operating costs. Computers are connected and communicate to ultimately make decisions without human involvement.  Using a combination of cyber-physical systems, ‘the smart factory’, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Systems, making this revolution a reality. Whilst still evolving, Industry 4.0 involves the cloud; additive manufacturing (3D printing); bots, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence; and auto-connected supply chains.

The first Industrial revolution began in the UK towards the end of the 18th century with the mechanisation of industries with the introduction of steam power by James Watt to process raw materials such as iron, steel and coal. This was followed  by the Spinning Jenny and the Jacquard Loom to mass produce textiles. The tippling point came with the launch of Stevenson’s Rocket which ushered in the mass adoption of railway transport.

The second Industrial revolution was mass assembly line factories pioneered by Henry Ford’s motor company which brought low cost goods to the masses. It also gave birth to Scientific Management theory  which began with  FW Taylor and Frank Gilbreth’s time and motion studies.

The third industrial revolution was in Information, Communications and Technology which included robotic automation, the networking of PCs, the mass adoption of Personal Computers and the realisation of Bill Gates’ vision to have a PC on every desk. The third industrial revolution closed with the mass adoption of the internet and e-commerce. Management theories that went hand in hand with the Third Industrial revolution included business process re-engineering and the morphing of management by objectives into holistic sophisticated visual performance measurement metrics based on Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Scorecard framework (1992).

The fourth Industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 promises to radically redesign business processes and will involve the augmentation of technology in human interaction. This will include new technologies such as: Autonomous systems, Machine Learning, Artificial intelligence, Augmented reality, Collaborative Robots that have direct human interaction, Smart Factories and the Internet of Things. The “Made Smarter” review in 2017 identified four main themes: the embracing of new technologies to improve product and service delivery; the value of data to supplement the servitization of a product offering; the upskilling of the workforce to facilitate a digital mindset and finally the ethics of management data in B2C and B2B environments.

On the 3rd November 2020 I chaired a webinar panel event co-hosted by UEA and Deakin University to discuss the challenges of Industry 4.0 and the jobs of the future. The panel included: Gabi Preston-Phypers, a former Investment Banking Vice President who now runs a Recruitment Consultancy working with AI and Robotic companies that are redefining our future job market; Imogen Shipperlee, Innovation Manager from Hethel Innovation Centre which provides incubation and SME space for high growth organisations in the Norfolk area as well as linking Silicon Fen (the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley in California, USA) to Norfolk via the Tech Corridor; Mark Miller, CIO NTT Australia and the Chairman of SQL Servers a multi-national company providing tech services for Oracle and Microsoft. The panel members included input from Joe Benham, Programme Manager for Benham Precision Engineering Ltd.

The Panel  Event Chaired by Associate Professor Graham Manville from UEA & moderated by Professor Alex Newman, Associate Dean for Internationalisation, from Deakin University featuring experts Mark Miller, Gabi Preston- Phypers and Imogen Shipperlee.

The Covid 19 pandemic has not only changed the supply side of the economy but it has also restricted and changed the customer side. This has provided much anxiety for business but as with Newton’s Third Law – To each action there is an equal and opposite reaction – there are vast opportunities within this sphere.

Mark Miller from NTT stated that Industry 4.0 is revolutionary and that  “Data is the new oil of the digital economy” and has the potential to transform his industry which involves data management for large organisations. He predicts productivity improvements will lower the cost of managing data, minimise data intrusion and through the deployment of “data crawling” bots find data assets more quickly. He also recognised that neural networks will need to overcome the ethical challenges  to provide assurance for data governance as well as business and consumer confidence.

Imogen Shipperlee who works closely with start-ups and SMEs to identify and secure funding from both central government and local government sources believes that technology alone will not be the solution and investment in upskilling the workforce will be necessary. Gabi Preston Phypers concurred and suggested that it is the responsibility of not only the employers but also of the individual as well as governments because everybody has a vested interest. In addition, there also needs to be provision to ensure that barriers to digital inclusion are removed so that people without connectivity or ownership of appropriate technology can remain inclusive.

Joe Benham from Benham Precision Engineering believes there are opportunities for advanced manufacturing by evolving to smarter factories which will involve: collaborative robotics which learn and work alongside humans,  the additive manufacture (3 D Printing) of high strength materials such as Titanium, Stainless Steel & Inconel into complex mission critical components as well as finding innovative ways to augment big data into a servitized  product and service offering for customers. All these opportunities will require a degree of reskilling of all levels of the workforce.

Industry 4.0 technologies have been taking shape for the last several years but with most technological innovations there is generally a degree of cultural lag or resistance to change.

There is no doubt that COVID 19 pandemic of 2020 has caused both health and economic devastation  for which the economies of the world may take years to recover. On the other hand such crises also serve as a tipping point for geopolitical government policies to find solutions which reconcile economic prosperity with the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. There are early signs of hope according to Associate Professor Graham Manville.   From an environmental perspective, the grounding of entire aircraft fleets due to Covid Lockdowns has accelerated the retirement of the entire 747 fleet  which will be replaced by more clean tech. and energy efficient aircraft solutions. In addition the USA President elect, Joe Biden has signalled the intention of the USA to re-join the Paris Agreement which the previous incumbent withdrew from.

On behalf of the University of East Anglia and Deakin University I would like to thank the panel of experts for taking part in a valuable discussion on Industry 4.0 in a post Covid world.

Our event was not intended to solve the problems relating to Covid 19 and Industry 4.0 but to stimulate the debate with business thought leaders. This blog will be followed up with more detailed examinations of the opportunities and threats within specific sectors.

By Associate Professor Graham Manville

Associate Professor Graham Manville, Director of Employability & Innovation for Norwich Business School, UEA

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