Training for a digital world

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2018

Kathryn Allen examines what digitalisation could mean for career paths and job requirements. 

Industrial digitalisation could boost UK manufacturing by £455bln over the next decade, raise manufacturing growth by 1.5–3% a year, and reduce CO2 emissions by 4.5%. This claim was made by the Made Smarter Review, published by the UK government in October 2017. 

The report defines industrial digitalisation as ‘the application of digital tools and technologies to the value chains of businesses who make things (e.g. in the automotive and construction industries) or are otherwise operationally asset intensive (e.g. power grids and wind farms)’. Industrial digitalisation technologies, including artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, robotics, and the Internet of Things, make up the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0. Sectors, including construction, automotive, and aerospace, are already investing heavily in these technologies. But what are the benefits of digitalisation and is society ready for it? 

Optimised processes 

The adoption of industrial digitalisation technologies could increase efficiency, reliability and safety, and reduced costs in industry, according to the report. This would lead to increased revenue, and in turn, the potential for increased wages and industry competitiveness. These technologies will also require the emergence of new, potentially higher paid, digital jobs. 

Furthermore, efficiency in industry – increasing productivity and reducing downtime – particularly manufacturing, could reduce detrimental environmental impacts. Robots may speed up manufacturing lines, while technology can also be used to monitor equipment, pre-empting issues. 

Made Smarter claims the UK aerospace industry could see a cost reduction of £1.2bln between 2017 and 2027 by using digitally enabled supply chain management, increasing its global competitiveness. Areas of further development include growing a digital workforce, and using artificial intelligence in design, fabrication, and operation. While concerns surrounding protecting the sector’s intellectual property and cyber security may act as barriers to further digitalisation, the review claims, ‘those outside the sector looking in cited culture to be the biggest barrier.’ 

A change of skills 

As well as this perception issue, the review also states that the UK is lagging behind other countries in exploiting digitalisation due to barriers including a lack of effective leadership, poor levels of adoption, a skills shortage in digital engineering capabilities, a lack of engagement between education and industry, and a lack of effective investment in creating new innovative companies and industries.

With a potential movement away from traditional, manual jobs, towards knowledge-based, digital jobs, there is the issue of whether workers have the skills required to take on these roles. While jobs may be lost from the rise in automation – although the Made Smarter Review claims that this is minimal, with automation designed to replace tasks, not people – a rise in roles requiring digital knowledge will increase. The report claims that there are currently 10.5 million people lacking basic online skills, with the majority aged over 55. Many of these are working in sectors in which digitalisation will become crucial to remaining competitive. 

The report lists recommendations for adopting industrial digitalisation technologies, including targeted and incentivised training programmes, access to expertise in digital innovation hubs, and creating a culture of continuous learning, so the workforce is agile and able to adapt skills to a changing environment. 

A skills Matrix, produced by the Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance (SEMTA) and its members for the report, lists emerging skills that could be needed in a future digital workplace. These include computer security software skills, using virtual and augmented reality, human-machine interaction skills, and microsystems technology. The formation of a national skills strategy and implementation group, identifying skills requirements, with the aim of re-training or up-skilling one million workers over the next five years, is also recommended. 

The World Economic Forum’s white paper Digital Transformation Initiative: Mining and Metals Industry, published in January 2017, had similar recommendations, stating, ‘The digital worker of tomorrow must be engaged and prepared today. Young workers need to be actively pulled into the industry and those populations that do not have the digital knowledge, such as in the developing world or ageing workers, must be trained for digital work internally or through practical educational partnerships.’ The paper also notes that new recruits may not have the mechanical knowledge that existing workers have, but that virtual reality and other technology can improve on-the-job training. 

Global efforts

With this in mind, companies and training centres are already responding to the digital skills gap. In April 2018, automation company Siemens, Germany, provided automation equipment and industrial network technology to Anglo American Platinum’s Engineering Skills Training Centre (ESTC), South Africa, which covers engineering trades such as electrical, rigging, and automotive electrics. 

Anglo American Platinum’s Executive Head of Processing, Gary Humphries, commented, ‘The rapid rate of technology advancement in the digital space brings with it huge opportunities for Anglo American Platinum, and indeed the mining industry. However, the technology alone is not sufficient to deliver the expected benefits. Successful implementation and adoption of these new technologies is critically dependent on the recruitment and development of people.’

The equipment donated will eventually be used at Anglo American Platinum’s new chrome plant at Amandelbult Mine, South Africa. First, the technology is being used at the ESTC to advance learning. Mpumi Sithole, Media Manager at Anglo American Platinum told Materials World, ‘The adoption of digital technology by ESTC will provide a good opportunity for the [students] to acquire an adequate skills-set that is required by various industries. These skills will give them competitive advantage in their [career] development programs.’

This investment in digital skills is also happening on a national scale. SkillsFuture is a Singaporean programme aiming to develop a high-quality education system that responds to changing markets and supports lifelong learning. Courses run under the programme cover data analytics, tech-enabled services, cybersecurity, and advanced manufacturing. 

Similarly, Germany has Plattform Industrie 4.0 – a scheme combining production methods with information and communication technology, driven by digitalisation of the economy and society. Plattform Industrie 4.0 – made up of federal ministers, and representatives from industry, science, and trade unions – is working to renew employees’ competencies and working structures. This is partly achieved through regional centres of excellence that provide small and medium-sized businesses with training opportunities. Promoting lifelong learning is a key element. 

UK efforts 

So how is digitalisation training and lifelong learning being promoted in the UK? Or is it, as the Made Smarter Review claims, lagging behind?

In the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Industrial Strategy: the 5 foundations policy paper, released in November 2017, key policies include investing £406m in maths, digital, and technical education, boosting digital infrastructure with more than £1bln of public investment, and creating a new National Retraining Scheme that supports re-skilling people, starting with a £64m investment in digital and construction training. Meetings concerning the National Retraining Scheme began in March 2018. 

Universities are also training for digitalisation. For example, the University of Oxford, UK, has a digital strategy with the aim of empowering staff and students, and improving teaching and research, through the provision of digital skills training. 

Similarly, in September 2017 the University of Sheffield, UK, collaborated with Siemens to set up the MindSphere Lounge. This is designed to give students access to digital technology, improving skills and research collaborations, via use of an Internet of Things platform – MindSphere – that collects and presents data from the university and connected projects, across sectors including manufacturing and energy. Also run by the university, Education 4.0 is an approach to training designed to complement industrial digitalisation, with its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and Factory 2050 working with companies such as Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover, and McLaren, to integrate technology with industry. 

Courses in digital skills training are also being developed. Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, has launched a postgraduate course titled Industrial Digitalisation: 3D Print and Digital Technology. Designed to allow graduates to get higher-paid jobs within Industry 4.0, this course is described by the university to focus on additive manufacturing, while covering all aspects of industrial digitalisation. 

This course will make use of the university’s new 3D printing hub – PrintCity, which was opened in March 2018. In a statement at the opening event, Professor Craig Banks, academic lead for PrintCity, explained that the hub is ‘a digital training centre that is bridging the skills gap between what graduates have and what industry needs’.

Efforts are clearly being made in the UK to digitalise the workforce, but it is necessary to acknowledge that learning for the digital workplace is continuous. As technology develops, the engineering industry must develop its workforce. 

To read the Made Smarter Review 2017, visit