At Digital Talks 2019, I chatted to science and technology journalist, Katherine Templar-Lewis, about the gap between industrial domain knowledge and technology expertise, and how closing this gap can help manufacturers de-risk their Industry 4.0 strategy.
Tell us a bit about yourself
My first experience in the manufacturing industry began at university, where I studied mechanical engineering. The research and development (R&D) parts particularly excited me, and this was a key reason for me going on to do a doctorate in welding within the automotive industry. After working in the automotive industry for six years, I moved into aerospace, where I focused on product development. It was here that my appreciation for technology grew. Luckily, there soon emerged an opportunity for me to move into technology consulting within this sector.
When I look across my career history, the combination of digital, manufacturing and engineering has always caught my attention. So, when the opportunity to work across all three worlds at Digital Catapult arose, I jumped at the chance
Can you explain what the aim of Digital Catapult is?
Our primary role is to try and help the manufacturing industry accelerate the early adoption of advanced digital technologies. Today, our network is made up of more than 12,000 companies and we are continuing to grow. The digital technologies we focus on are across three key areas which, we believe, are the most exciting in the market. These are Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, future networks, and immersive. By ‘immersive’, we mean technologies including virtual reality, augmented reality, and haptics.
We are also always keeping an eye out for future technologies. Our Future Focus programme, for instance, looks at blockchain, distributed ledger technology and cybersecurity – three complex, fast-moving areas of digital technology.
It is a very new world, but I think that is why many manufacturers often see digital as a big challenge. What do organisations like yourself look for in the companies you work with?
We really need them to be excited about the possibilities. One of the great things about manufacturing and engineering is that people within these fields tend to be inquisitive anyway.
We see this with the companies we work with; they are curious and they want to know how new technologies are going to impact their business. They are also, as you may imagine, acutely aware of the risks associated with change. To remain competitive, however, companies have to embrace change. Digital technologies might be new, but they allow for a level of experimentation which never existed before. It is an exciting time, particularly for companies who are looking to scale up
Experimenting with technology can be exciting and also quite scary in some ways. A lot of manufacturers perhaps do not have the 'digital maturity'. Does that matter?
I think that is a fair point – change is scary. At Digital Catapult, however, we encourage companies to look at digital in a similar way to the rest of their R&D programmes. For instance, the manufacturing industry invests more in R&D than any other sector. Most of that goes on things like new materials, new processes, new machine tools, and new ways of running manufacturing operations. But there are no guarantees that they are a good investment until they are put to work. In the same way that developing a new material or alloy is not always the so-called “safest” thing to do, the potential makes it worth it – and I think that is something we need to replicate when we look at introducing new digital technologies.
The concept of 'transforming together' is very much at the forefront of what you do at Digital Catapult. However, this is not necessarily the way manufacturers work in the traditional sense. How do convince people that this is way forward?
You’re right. Currently, there is a huge gap between industrial domain knowledge and technology expertise and it is decelerating growth in the industry.
One way to deal with this challenge is to identify a couple of pain points in your business and focus on them. You only need to identify two or three areas, but they will help to give you an idea of how digital technologies could fit into your business model. Then, when you know what your company wants from technology, you can look towards collaboration to leverage its value.
What do you say to companies who might be expecting to see immediate impact throughout the value chain?
I think many businesses are making small, tactical advantages already. Some have developed new business models and new revenue streams in order to be forward-thinking. But none of it is that transformative. Investing in technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), for instance, might seem impressive, but they are not going to turn over hundreds of millions of pounds overnight. Technology alone won’t do that.
To me, the real impact will be felt more gradually. Over the long-term, I think the first wave of entrants will find great value from working with their new digital products and servitised business models, and they will soon be ahead of the curve. Then, when other companies start to see the potential in digital technologies for themselves, there will undoubtedly be a ripple effect of take-up across the industry.