Preparing for digitalisation: There’s no time to lose

21 May 2019

Dr Maurice J Wilkins offers some food for thought about the need for UK industry to come together to ensure that the engineering workforce is prepared for the digital transformation.

As a chemical engineer who has worked in process automation for the past 40 years, I have seen many changes on my journey from pneumatic to digital. In my opinion, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and digitalisation will impact manufacturing more than at any other time since the 1970’s when distributed control systems were introduced. It promises to be a very exciting time, but I do not see that enthusiasm in the younger people I meet on my travels. As executive advisor to the marketing headquarters of Yokogawa Electric Corporation and engineering director for the Institute of Measurement and Control (InstMC), I lecture to students around the UK on the impact that digital transformation is having on manufacturing. When I ask the question ‘Who knows about the IIoT or digitalisation’ – no hands go up. Of course they have heard of drones and autonomous cars, but nothing much else and they do not seem to understand the potential impact on industry and on their own futures.

A call to arms
The ‘Made Smarter Review’ was issued late in 2017 and this should have been a ‘call to arms’ for UK educational institutions and industry associations, but they seem to be falling behind. There are some that are embracing the challenge such as Surrey, Huddersfield and Nottingham universities, and Manchester has a 3D printing centre, but many need to improve. 

Organisations could work more closely with higher education institutions. One example is the University of Huddersfield where staff are engaged in the use of big data and real-time analytics through the Institute of Railway Research as well as pursuing research in employing business process modelling techniques to identify areas where processes may be digitised and then subsequently analysed.  

As far as industry goes, to minimise the risks for organisations, maybe a way forward would be to spread it between different institutions.  Industry could work closely with educational institutions in research and education to promote the understanding of the applications of Industry 4.0 and share the resources and dedication required from both institutions.  Researchers within the education institutions working closely with employees and given access to existing business processes, would be given the ability to incorporate proofs of concept for re-vamped digitised processes.

The Institute of Measurement and Control (InstMC) and other institutions can help. The InstMC, for example, has recently formed a Digital Transformation Special Interest Group (SIGs), which now has over 80 members. The group’s proposed deliverables include:

• Creating a definition of Digital Transformation from an InstMC perspective.
• Create a list of acronyms.
• Understanding: Guidelines, skills needed, benefits, challenges etc, and how the InstMC can help.
• Technology: Definitions and information, gaps, integration of technologies.
• Standards: Feedback from industry standards groups and identify any necessary new standards.
• Alignment: via links to other organisations and SIGs, Cyber security SIG, Automation SIG, Standards SIG, Measurement SIG, others?
• Creating a library of documents and articles.

Professional bodies are also able to promote the relevant training and education required, showcasing best practices at conferences, for example. The knowledge base can then be monitored and developed using the accreditation process and continuing professional development (CPD) now required by the Engineering Council. 

Digitisation represents an opportunity for education and industry to work together to tackle the challenges of future generations. Industry, academia and the professional associations and institutions have to come together in the UK to foster and embrace it.

I would like to thank David Brown (Consultant and former CEO of IChemE), Simon Bragg (Nottingham University), Paul Singh and Grant Mitchell (Huddersfield University) for their input into this article.

Dr. Maurice J. Wilkins is engineering director at the InstMC and is executive advisor marketing HQ, at Yokogawa Corporation.

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