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Businesses must embrace the 4th industrial revolution

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29 August 2019 | Paul Winstanley

Scotland has long punched above its weight when it comes to manufacturing. The country played a leading role in the first industrial revolution and remained a hub of industry as we embraced mass production and then digital technologies. However, it would be fair to say Scotland’s status as a global manufacturing powerhouse has waned in the last few decades.

As we enter a new era of technological change, there is a clear and concerted ambition to reverse that process. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Scottish Government’s near-£50 million commitment to the National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland (NMIS) – a purpose-built facility in which academics and industry can solve some of the sector’s biggest challenges.

NMIS will undoubtedly be pivotal to the development of Scotland’s manufacturing industry and growing its contribution to the economy. One of its most important roles will be in helping manufacturers embrace the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). In addition to advances in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology, IIoT will help to usher in Industry 4.0 – the fourth industrial revolution.

Industry 4.0 has huge potential – it could reinvent business and society as we know it. Built around intelligent systems and machine learning, it will merge the physical and digital worlds by connecting devices, products, and humans.

For manufacturers, it can help boost productivity through the use of data to more accurately make and customise goods, linking customer requirements more closely with the factory floor. IIoT technology can also be employed to track product development through the production cycle, giving manufacturers and end-users the ability to trace its entire history. This could be particularly useful with Brexit looming, or even for industries, such as whisky, which are aiming to tackle counterfeiting.

Yet, while IIoT is often talked of as a far-off, almost abstract concept that will only start to have an impact years down the line, it is in fact happening in Scotland now – we’re already seeing success stories emerge.

Last year, for example, Glasgow-based Castle Precision Engineering won a major contract with Rolls-Royce on the back of a business transformation programme which has made the company leaner and more productive.

Likewise, through its work with the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC), tool and mould-die maker Pascoe Engineering has significantly cut the production time on cranial implants – a huge step forward for patients recovering from trauma to the skull.

There are plenty more illustrations of how IIoT could be implemented in the future. But, what’s most pertinent is the size of these businesses: they are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which account for more than 99% of companies in Scotland. They prove that businesses of any size can embrace innovation now.

While the delivery of NMIS will act as an important catalyst for change, there is already a remarkable amount of IIoT support and infrastructure available to help Scotland’s manufacturing companies embrace Industry 4.0.

In fact, IoT networks on which businesses can build applications have already been deployed across the country, from Orkney to Renfrewshire. The Scottish Government-backed ‘IoT Scotland’ programme, which will roll out an IoT network across the country, will soon enhance those capabilities.

Scotland has a proud industrial heritage – by taking the right steps, it can play as central a role in the fourth industrial revolution as it did the first. To achieve that ambition, Scottish businesses should embrace the opportunities of IIoT – and the time to do it isn’t at some point in the future: it’s now.