The future of manufacturing

Clay Technology magazine
26 Oct 2018

John Grew, Site Engineering Manager at Ibstock Brick Ltd, and Stephen Mitchell, Director of Apprenticeship and Technical Training at EEF, UK, talk to Ellis Davies about the future of manufacturing in the UK.

The future of manufacturing is a question often on the lips of those in industry, with the rise of automation and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) on the horizon. Worries over the fate of those employed in jobs that could potentially be done by a machine and the need for re-training are prevalent, along with some distrust and resistance to the new technologies.

Clay Technology speaks to two figures in the industry – John Grew of Ibstock Brick, and Stephen Mitchell of EEF, about their thoughts on the fallout of 4IR, the changes that we’ve already witnessed and how employees and end-users could be affected.

How has the working environment changed over the years?

JG: When I first started out, equipment was all mechanical, with basic controls systems. As the pressures of commerce increased on the companies, they had to look for more efficient ways of doing things, with more energy efficient systems.

Training has also developed. Before, people were often seen as a resource to get the job done, but now businesses can see that by using employees more efficiently you can make things more cost effective and less energy intensive.

Is training more prevalent now?

JG: Definitely. Before it was a case of just putting hands on the ground. The more people you had, the better things worked. Now it’s about skilling people to make them more efficient at what they do, and give them the skills to carry out multiple jobs. It’s all about developing people to further their careers, building their commitment to the business and keeping them engaged.

SM: Training is essential for achieving progress, inspiring innovation and increasing efficiency. This is especially true when there are skill gaps, which is probably inevitable with the onset of the 4IR.

John Grew

There is an emphasis on training for robotics and automated factories and processes, data recognition and collection to give us a better understanding of how 4IR is shaping and will be shaping future manufacturing.

As a result of IT, data collection and management, decision-making has to become transparent by removing the human factor from the mundane. The challenge is to get this message across and to enable people and organisations to achieve this while making it interesting and exciting.

What are the top skills needed going forward?

SM: Automation will certainly continue to play a major role going forward. That skillset is inseparably linked to the 4IR. The management and maintenance of those systems are essential and will grow to be an even bigger part of what manufacturing will be centred on in the near and far future. More traditional core skills like CNC tools will continue to be strong as older generations of the workforce retire. Systems awareness – the concept that you can have an automated solution for a constantly growing number of operations – will require people to have a wider spread of knowledge across the basic manufacturing processes.

It’s possible that Brexit will drive the level of competitiveness, forcing us to move faster and look at the way we manufacture so that we are efficient. If robotics, automation and materials-handling solutions are part of the answer to that challenge, then people will have to firmly embrace it.

JG: I think we’ll lose the manual kind of work that the general employee does – that’s where the machines will potentially take over. But it doesn’t matter how good the machinery is, there will always be an aspect we need people for. At the end of the day, we’re the most advanced machines on the planet, so you’re not going to be able to replace everything people do. Yes, you will re-skill in certain areas to look after the machines, but the machines can’t replace us totally – it will never happen.

What are you thoughts on 4IR?

JG: 4IR won’t be much about a huge paradigm shift in how we do things, but more about the evolution of what we already have. We can use this in different ways to make our processes more efficient. It will be evolution rather than revolution.

Do you think evolution will widen the skills gap?

JG: There’s always going to be a little bit of a divide because of the political and social impacts – people thinking that machines are stealing jobs. But, the other side is that technology allows people to work safer, removes error from the process and removes dangers so you don’t have to expose people to the same risks that you used to. It’s a double-edged sword, really.

Stephen Mitchell

SM: We need to move away from single-skill workers to multi-skill workers. Managers now realise it’s sometimes better to spend a little more in order to achieve synergy and get exactly the training they need, which will actually improve production and increase efficiency.

Do you think the clay industry can be resistant to change?

JG: I’ve seen and witnessed that the clay and brick industry can be resistant to using technology, and I think this is because it has been around for centuries, and what has been done for the last 200 years has worked – why would you change it? But at the same time, with a new generation coming through, they’re saying yes it works, but you could do it even better if we did this or that. I think there’s now starting to be a slight shift in the way that we do things.

What could hold the industry back?

JG: I think the biggest problem is competition. In the UK brick industry there are three or four big brick suppliers, and they’re all on a par. Until there’s a threat to the industry or individual company they’re not going to push the technologies forward.

Will new technologies benefit the end-user?

JG: If you think of other industries, you can’t afford to make a car that has an imperfection because nobody will buy it. The problem with bricks is that when you’re producing billions of bricks there is an inherent wastage element, but in a marketplace with a shortage of bricks, you can still sell those. But, until the customer demands 100% perfection, there’s no need to produce this. Using new technology you could obtain this perfection, but again, the market drivers aren’t there to warrant it.