Digital skills gap could hit manufacturing

Posted on January 20, 2021 by Jonathan Symcox

Ruth Hailwood

Ruth Hailwood

SME manufacturers joining the Industry 4.0 revolution are driving up the demand for data science and software engineering skills, according to Made Smarter, the movement helping businesses grow through technology adoption. 

Half of the 126 businesses adopting technology with the support of the Made Smarter North West pilot have put data and systems integration at the heart of their productivity and growth plans. 

By embracing technologies which connect disparate systems and unify data residing in different sources, companies are spotting trends in production, labour, maintenance and quality issues. They are also able to minimise safety risks, business risk and operational downtime throughout their production. 

But while this technology is solving business challenges and driving growth, it is also highlighting a digital skills gap across industry and emphasising the need for existing workforces to be upskilled. 

Ruth Hailwood, Made Smarter’s specialist organisational and workforce development adviser, has worked with many of the 1,140 businesses engaged with Made Smarter’s pilot to map the skills they need to introduce new digital tools and technologies. 

“The fact that 126 SME manufacturers have committed to investing in new technology projects in the two years since the pilot started, demonstrates the significant appetite for digital tools and solutions,” she said. “And the impact of COVID-19 has only accelerated the desire to speed up digital transformation. 

“Data and systems integration projects have emerged as the enabler for businesses to embrace other technologies such as AI, IIOT, Simulation and analytics, taking in more than half of all funded projects  

“But what has also become clear is that SME manufacturers lack the key data analytics skills to be able to make best use of what their data is telling them. 

“With so many businesses using data and system integration technologies it is vital that companies invest in data science skills and software engineering to capitalise on all the new information. They need in-house skills to champion and drive projects forward.” 

One way that Made Smarter is helping bridge that gap is through a digital technology internship programme which has so far connected 31 university students and graduates with SME manufacturers to work on live digital transformation projects. 

SME manufacturers benefit from the fresh insight of a digital native to help them adopt technological tools that result in a raft of benefits, including increased revenue growth, reduced production time, and produce the data and insight for new product and market development.  

Meanwhile, undergraduates, master’s and PhD students, as well as graduates from UK universities, are benefitting from paid work experience, valuable hands-on practical work experience, a taste of a potential career path, and a foot in the door of a forward-thinking company or industry. A number have even secured permanent jobs. 

Beverston Engineering, a Knowsley-based manufacturer of components for safety critical industries such as aerospace, is implementing an ambitious digital strategy with the support of Made Smarter. 

Rod Wah (below), Managing Director, said: “Data and systems integration sits at the core of our innovation strategy and the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies offers us a major opportunity to continue growing both our global reputation and our revenue. However, the digital skills we needed to take that first major step to realise our vision of a smart factory did not exist in our business, and bridging that skills gap is a major challenge. 

“My experience is that it seems like traditional apprenticeships are still teaching the same thing that I did in the 1970s – rather than including the digital skills required by industry. Unless industry and education work together the skills gap is going to increase and hold back many businesses from taking advantage of the opportunities Industry 4.0 offers.” 

Beverston has managed to partially plug that skills gap through Made Smarter’s digital technology internships using Oliver Miller, a Master’s student in Aerospace Engineering at Liverpool University, who is developing a new quality management system. 

“The opportunities Industry 4.0 brings are really exciting, and I am keen to share that enthusiasm with colleagues at Beverston and upskill them as to the benefits of new technologies,” Oliver said. “As an SME, the native digital skills aren’t there, so it has been a great opportunity to share my experience of software, programming languages and other data skills, and what I have learnt during my studies.” 

Playdale Playgrounds, based in Cumbria, has ambitions to become a fully digital factory, integrating the design and manufacturing processes, and using IIoT sensors to capture real-time performance and predictive maintenance data. 

Recognising the potential skills gap, Playdale recruited Greg Saul (below), a graduate Product Design and Technology from Loughborough University, through Made Smarter’s digital internship programme. 

He has been working on a data and systems project which has reduced design time by 20% and improved the quality of presentation for customers. 

Greg, 23, from Lancaster, said: “I supported Playdale by proposing new software and streamlining the design process to improve workflow from planning to presentation. The results have been fantastic.  

“It has been a rewarding experience to be able to bring in my skillset to the business and support their vision for the future.” 

Paul Mallinson, Technical and Operations Director, said: “The crux of the challenge is that while we have a crystal-clear awareness of what we need to do, we struggle with the resource and skills to drive it forward. 

“We are fortunate to have Greg on board, bringing his ability and focus on technology projects, and we are looking to upskill our younger, more digitally capable workforce, but the lack of available skills is slowing down our progress. 

“The difficulty is that while the skills demanded by modern manufacturing are starting to emerge through colleges and universities, it will be five to 10 years before they are more readily available, and we need those skills now.” 

Crystal Doors, a manufacturer of bespoke vinyl wrapped furniture components based in Rochdale, has embarked on its digital transformation with the support of Made Smarter. 

Lewis Cookson (below), a graduate in BSc Computer Science & Digital Forensics from Northumbria University, was paired with Crystal Doors through Made Smarter’s digital internship programme. 

He has been supporting the implementation of a data and systems integration project which will establish a network of sensors connecting their machines through the cloud onto a dashboard. This will enable Crystal to gain insights into how its machines are performing and identify potential efficiencies.  

Lewis, 23, from Lancaster, said: “Crystal Doors has some very exciting plans for the future and it is fantastic to be part of that journey, capturing and displaying real time data analysis for the first time, supporting the betterment of the company, and playing a role in reducing carbon emissions. 

“It is exciting for me to be able to take my specialism and skills and apply them to a real life situation and see the results. The progress we have made so far ellipses everything that has been achieved in recent years. We are making great strides.” 

Ben Horn, Digital Transformation Programme Manager, said: “Our digitalisation plans are ambitious and will introduce technologies and concepts that are brand new to the workforce. The cultural change has to be handled properly. We don’t want anyone left behind so the training and transition needs to be as easy and intuitive as possible. Upskilling our staff is key to its success.  

“By bringing on Lewis through Made Smarter we have doubled the pace of the transformation. His input has been incredible and an injection of rocket fuel into our project.” 

The Made Smarter Review identified skills shortage as a major barrier to technology adoption and that businesses are being hindered by a fragmented skills system and a lack of systematic engagement between education and industry. 

Recent research by the Made Smarter North West Pilot revealed 8 out of 10 manufacturers recognised that gaps in their skills and knowledge were potentially impacting on their ability to adopt digital technologies. 

Ruth Hailwood added: “The challenge manufacturing SMEs are facing is that the skills and training landscape is mixed. There are some very basic digital skills offerings, and then at the other extreme, the training is very technical and specialised. What’s missing is the in-between for SMEs. SME owners need something that focuses on building understanding of digital technologies and how they can be used as tools to take their business forward, taking away the fear of the unknown.   

“That is what Made Smarter is about, demystifying this technology and removing that fear factor. 

“What is also needed for SMEs around specific skill sets, is training that has a high impact, is flexible to allow them to fit it around their workload and business demands and gives them practical skills to  implement straight away, bringing immediate benefit.” 

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