Manufacturers boost 4IR investments but progress desperately needed

Manufacturers are continuing to boost investment in fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies with increasing evidence that many companies have moved beyond the initial ‘conception’ phase and into the ‘evolution’ phase where they are seeing real benefits from their investments according to a major survey published by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation.

The findings come as a separate survey for EEF by YouGov reveals that the public prioritises adoption of new technologies over job security with just over one quarter (26%) of people agreeing with the statement that we shouldn’t adopt new technology if it means jobs will be lost.

According to EEF, new digital technologies are rapidly transforming European manufacturing and investment in 4IR technologies is vital to achieving a step change in UK manufacturing productivity given performance has flat-lined in the decade since the financial crisis. The survey shows being innovative with technology is seen by manufacturers as the number one factor to help boost productivity 44%).

However, the survey also shows despite some manufacturers making investments, the majority (57%) are yet to do so and only one in four companies see the UK as being in a leadership position. According to EEF, this matters because it means barriers are standing in the way of additional investment.

Commenting, Chris Richards, Head of Business Environment Policy at EEF, said: “New digital technologies are rapidly transforming manufacturing and are key to boosting improvements in productivity. While there has been some progress and more companies are both aware of and, investing in, 4IR it is clear the majority are not doing enough.

“While there has been some positive progress on building the full fibre internet which will remove one of the fundamental roadblocks in their way we desperately need to see more progress if the UK is to achieve a leadership position. An industrial strategy focussed on productivity has a key role to play in helping companies push through the barriers that still remain.”

According to the survey, almost two thirds of companies (64%) say they are familiar with the concept of 4IR which compares to 42% in 2016. This progress is also highlighted by the fact 43% of companies have moved beyond the initial ‘conception’ phase examining how 4IR may help and what others are doing, to the ‘evolution’ phase where current business practice is optimised with new technologies.

The survey also shows the move to a more advanced form of 4IR investment for companies is seeing significant benefits being expected or realised in terms of improved labour efficiency (35%), improved machine utilisation rates (34%) and increased production flexibility (32%).

However, the survey also shows that significant barriers still remain in the way of a digital future. In particular lack of skills within business for implementation tops the list for 88% of companies, although breaking down by phase of those doing nothing (30%) the biggest barrier is not understanding how technologies can help the business.

Of those doing the most on 4IR, skills becomes less of an issue as the biggest barrier is compatibility of systems (42%).

According to EEF, while there has been some positive progress in recent months on building the full fibre internet that 4IR will depend on progress is desperately needed. In particular, Government should:

  • Announce plans for the Made Smarter Commission, delayed since February.
  • Back the industrial strategy challenge fund wave 3 bid for industrial digitisation. This will help address the lack of understanding about the benefits of new digital technologies.