AFRC Set to Revolutionise SME Machine Processes
“ (AFRC) in the UK spoke in a North-West Europe wide project designed to transform the machining sector, helping 1300 SMEs to stimulate turnover and employment through the uptake of Industry 4.0 technologies.”
Despite the machining sector itself seeing an annual turnover of over £23bn, the lack of innovation and increased competition from low wage countries over the last five years, has left SMEs (small to medium enterprises) within the machining sector a little behind, but following an investment of over £4mn into the three-year project funded by Interreg, that could drastically change.
The North-West Europe machining sector itself is made up of over 6,000 SMEs, and unfortunately, its rate of innovation has failed to maintain pace with ever-evolving customer needs, perhaps especially with global changes due to COVID. As a result of this, production within the region itself has shifted to low-wage countries in Eastern Europe and Asia, while the UK, Germany and Switzerland are highlighted as front running regions that have taken advanced steps to adopt new Industry 4.0 technologies.
The AFRC is the only UK partner, with the other nine based in countries across North-West Europe. The project itself is set to help 1300 SMEs in total embrace new and innovative technologies in a number of ways:
- 1,000 SMEs will receive knowledge on innovative manufacturing technologies
- 250 SMEs will be encouraged to experiment with new technologies and collaborate with research and development partners
- 50 SMEs will receive intensive business support
AFRC is a world-leading innovation centre and the only High-Value Manufacturing Catapult in Scotland, and as such is bringing its high level of expertise in advanced machining strategies to the party. Currently, they’re developing a legacy machine tool, designed to be integrated with low-cost sensors for extracting information to improve future machining processes, alongside analytical tools to help users make more informed decisions.
Kareema Hilton, project lead at the AFRC, put it best:
“The consortium is bringing together different areas of expertise to provide practical help for machining SMEs looking to innovate within North-West Europe. Along with the other six Catapult centres across the UK, we’ve been working with SMEs for some time to help them identify innovative technologies and process improvements that will save on costs and materials and shorten lead times across various sectors,
Machining 4.0 provides us with a fantastic opportunity to share the vast knowledge and practical examples that we’ve developed across the important areas of machining and materials characterisation here at the AFRC,
Using these complementary areas of expertise, we’ll help firms better understand their products and the effect that manufacturing processes, such as machining, have on those products. This will help them boost efficiency and ultimately become more competitive.”
The saying goes “competition breeds innovation”, and that much is clearly a belief of the AFRC and their combined efforts with other countries and manufacturing entities dedicated to up the game of SMEs globally.
Gartner: Leaders Lack Skilled Smart Manufacturing Workers
With organisations rapidly adopting industry 4.0 capabilities to increase productivity, efficiency, transparency, and quality as well as reduce cost, manufacturers “are under pressure to bring their workforce into the 21st century,” says Gartner.
While more connected factory workers are leveraging digital tools and data management techniques to improve decision accuracy, increase knowledge and lessen variability, 57% of manufacturing leaders feel that their organisations lack the skilled workers needed to support their smart manufacturing digitalisation plans.
“Our survey revealed that manufacturers are currently going through a difficult phase in their digitisation journey toward smart manufacturing,” said Simon Jacobson, Vice President analyst, Gartner Supply Chain practice.
“They accept that changing from a break-fix mentality and culture to a data-driven workforce is a must. However, intuition, efficiency and engagement cannot be sacrificed. New workers might be tech-savvy but lack access to best practices and know-how — and tenured workers might have the knowledge, but not the digital skills. A truly connected factory worker in a smart manufacturing environment needs both.”
Surveying 439 respondents from North America, Western Europe and APAC, Gartner found that “organisational complexity, integration and process reengineering are the most prevalent challenges for executing smart manufacturing initiatives.” Combined they represent “the largest change management obstacle [for manufacturers],” adds Gartner.
“It’s interesting to see that leadership commitment is frequently cited as not being a challenge. Across all respondents, 83% agree that their leadership understands and accepts the need to invest in smart manufacturing. However, it does not reflect whether or not the majority of leaders understand the magnitude of change in front of them – regarding technology, as well as talent,” added Jacobson.
Technology and People
While the value and opportunities smart manufacturing can provide an organisation is being recognised, introducing technology alone isn’t enough. Gartner emphasises the importance of evolving factory workers alongside the technology, ensuring that they are on board in order for the change to be successful.
“The most immediate action is for organisations to realize that this is more than digitisation. It requires synchronising activities for capability building, capability enablement and empowering people. Taking a ‘how to improve a day in the life’ approach will increase engagement, continuous learning and ultimately foster a pull-based approach that will attract tenured workers. They are the best points of contact to identify the best starting points for automation and the required data and digital tools for better decision-making,” said Jacobson.
Long term, “it is important to establish a data-driven culture in manufacturing operations that is rooted in governance and training - without stifling employee creativity and ingenuity,” concluded Gartner.