Could smart factories help to revitalise UK manufacturing?

4 mins read

Smart factories will be at the heart of the Industry 4.0 revolution, a future vision of manufacturing in which factories are populated by machines that will be self-optimised, self-configured and even employ artificial intelligence to complete complex manufacturing tasks and, in the process, provide cost efficiencies for companies and improved levels of service and quality for customers.

When combined with new additive technologies and 3D printing the factory of the future will be one in which people are comfortable operating and working alongside machines capable of regulating and monitoring themselves.

For industrial firms the value from Industry 4.0 or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) emerges from either cost savings, such as better preventative maintenance, or from new revenue generation, derived from better product development or being quicker to market. In short, it promises to deliver significant value to organisations as they transform their business models and services by embracing the data that an army of sensors can provide.

“As to what the future of smart factories will be and what Industry 4.0 actually means depends on who you talk too,” suggests Dr Graeme Philp, Chief Executive of Gambica and a member of the ESCO Industry 4.0 work stream, “but what we are seeing is a significant move towards greater automation and machine intelligence which is driving manufacturers to look beyond traditional centrally organised scheduling systems.

“It will be a world in which ongoing product development will be possible. Devices will be capable of feeding back data via the cloud, even when they have left the factory, enabling continuous innovation to take place in the field.”

Manufacturing is being transformed by the information technology revolution and factories will be more automated and IT-driven – they will be smarter, safer and more sustainable.

So if the UK is to remain competitive in the world economy, will it need to embrace the concept of ‘Smarter Factories’?

Smart factories

Perhaps it already has begun that process as there are a number of sites in the UK that could be described as leaders when it comes to the adoption of Industry 4.0.

HARTING Integrated Solutions (HIS), based in Northampton, designs and manufactures backplanes and backplane systems for customer-specific applications, including fully integrated systems.

“We offer solutions to enable the integrated industry associated with Industry 4.0,” says Rob Pulman, European Applications Manager at HARTING, “primarily connectivity products that combine power, signal and data. But we also employ an Industry 4.0 modular manufacturing approach ourselves that uses RFID readers and tags to manage and monitor production.”

Customers can place orders online using the company’s eShop and via its SAP system factory cells can combine to provide different frames, modular assembly and labelling.

"We offer a genuinely customised product that can be produced quickly and efficiently and are able to handle very small batches,” Pulman explains.

According to Pulman it’s an approach that will be extended to other product lines and is an example of Industry 4.0 in practice.

“We want to be a key supplier in this rapidly developing integrated industry market,” he explains.


The evolution of the IIoT will be supported by an increasingly complex network of systems and services.

“What we are going to see is far greater customisation driven by these new technologies,” suggests Philp.

“Traditionally plants have been designed for mass production and as a result tend to be relatively inflexible. Today, we are beginning to see manufacturers adopting technologies that are capable of speeding up and customising production – a key differentiator in a crowded market.”

Future factories will see a proliferation in the deployment of sensors throughout the manufacturing process, with the data generated managed and controlled via the cloud.

“The IIoT will make factories flexible and ultimately they will be able to manufacture batch sizes of one, i.e. manufacturing to order. In effect the smart factory of tomorrow could turn out to be a very sophisticated 3D printer,” suggests Philp. He also believes that the factory model will itself change completely.

“Imagine design and development that is centralised, while production is dispersed to regional factories so as to be nearer to end markets. For example, could we see small, pop-up factories in the centre of London or Manchester?”

Small automated factories will only need one of two people to manage them and being located near to their end markets will avoid the need for product to be shipped vast distances.

“Not only would that impact on carbon emissions it could result in manufacturing being re-shored. The competitive environment is set to change,” Philp believes.

“Manufacturing will be located where there is a market and you won’t have to be good at manufacturing in the traditional sense. We will be able to eliminate low-cost labour as a key pre-requisite for a successful manufacturing economy.

“What will be key to future success will be the availability of a sophisticated and successful supply chain, that is where the people and jobs will be in the future. That will determine a factory’s ability to deliver and manage customised production.”

‘If it’s not broke’

In a recent research report looking at manufacturing in the UK it was found that while German manufacturing was 2.7 times larger than in the UK, German companies were spending upwards of 6.6 times as much on automation than those in the UK, with no negative impact on employment levels.

When UK companies were asked what their experience of automation was their response was almost universally positive with over 90 percent saying that automation projects had met their objectives and both protected and created new jobs.

Philp suggests that while Germany has a good record when it comes to investing in new technology, “Manufacturers may want to protect the status quo – the ‘if it’s not broke, why fix it’ syndrome.

“Compare their situation to the UK’s where no one is seriously looking to protect the way we currently work,” he says. He goes on, “In many respects the UK is a blank canvas, so the concept of the Smart Factory may gain traction here more quickly than many expect.”

On that last point Philp maybe being overly optimistic but his argument that the key challenge for the UK is to make industry more aware of the concept holds true.

“That is always the challenge and especially in reaching smaller to medium sized businesses. It will require a big change to the way they have traditionally operated, so the primary challenge is to get them to engage. How do we reach them?”

Last year saw the opening of the UK’s first Industry 4.0 incubator – a digital factory demonstrator – comprising of a virtual 3D factory alongside a physical production line designed to demonstrate the mass customisation of consumer goods.

Based in the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry it allows users to interact with a virtual 3D factory. Described as a ‘living lab’ the factory allows the latest technologies to be ‘dropped’ in to illustrate how the output from sensors can be used to manage and alter the functions of robotic elements in the production process. Network machinery, control systems and sensors operate alongside one another so that data can be drawn together, combined and decisions made.

“The demonstrator is a great educational tool,” says Philp. “It’s a practical demonstration of Industry 4.0.”

Some features and technologies associated with Industry 4.0 are becoming more commonplace in manufacturing. What will change manufacturing going forward will be the richness of the data available and the ability to customise products more profitably.

A big question must hang over the human element in this but perhaps, the nature of the jobs available will change from manufacturing itself to the programming and servicing of machines.