Digital technologies hold the key to developing the UK’s long-term reshoring strategy

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Embracing digital technologies will need to be a key component of any UK reshoring strategy warns one of the world’s leading industrial innovation technology specialists.

Paul Haimes, European Vice President of Technical Sales for Farnborough-based PTC, believes the new-found desire to manufacture more in the UK will have to be supported by a willingness from industry to further invest in automation and adopt the digital technologies which underpin the Industrial Internet of Things.

He feels that for domestic production to continue its increasing parity with traditionally low-cost counties, there will need to be careful investment to improve productivity throughout the full product lifecycle, including the connected factory and product in the field.

This means aiming for greater manufacturing operational intelligence by capturing and analysing data from machines, processes and factories to reduce lead times, shrink costs and boost product throughput.

“The coronavirus outbreak, after all, has highlighted the fragility of outsourcing to offshore locations,” explained Paul, who was central to PTC’s involvement in the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium.

“While many UK manufacturers had already experienced quality issues and rising transport costs associated with outsourcing, the virus has wreaked havoc on extended supply chains. As a result, the risks of over-reliance on overseas supply of strategically critical components and parts have come into sharp focus.”

He continued: “The challenge now, as I see it, is for manufacturing companies to figure out how to turn reshoring into a long-lasting and sustainable trend. In preparation for a post-Covid world, companies need to start planning for a fundamental shift in industrial production, based on digital technologies that leverage our proven strengths as a global base of manufacturing skills and talent.”

PTC is playing a significant role in the successful ramp-up of Smiths and Penlon ventilators for use by the NHS.

The company has used its Vuforia Expert Capture Augmented Reality (AR) technology and Microsoft’s HoloLens to create a virtual guide to building the different models and is transferring it to the factories of consortium partners through the power of AR glasses and tablets. This is helping increase capacity, whilst at the same time minimising the risk of the virus spreading among consortium partners.

Whilst many manufacturing leaders will no doubt worry that this reinvention will involve huge investment at a time when preserving capital is paramount, Paul believes this approach shows how you can achieve operational intelligence on an incremental basis.

He also underlines how through the introduction of low-cost sensors – deployed in limited sprints for example – small wins can be generated that build into real savings. Smart use of intelligent robotics could also help factories redeploy a limited workforce on higher-value activities.

Paul went on to add: “In the current crisis, there are valuable lessons to be learned. Over recent months, many manufacturers have found themselves struggling to respond to the changing situation, with demand patterns and materials availability thrown into disruption.

“However, if the Industry 4.0 trend is about anything, it’s about moving away from a traditional reactive state to a more predictive one, which anticipates the availability of materials, people and assets and constantly reassesses and reschedules production plans accordingly.

“As our involvement in the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium has amply demonstrated, a willingness to experiment with digital technologies, combined with the best of our nation’s manufacturing skills and talent, can be a powerful combination.

“It’s a lesson that will hopefully be remembered as we move towards a post-Covid world, one in which the UK is able to take full advantage of its innate strengths and reinforce its domestic capabilities for future resilience.”

PTC employs 163 people across its UK and Ireland operations and provides a host of technology solutions to help industrial companies create value for themselves and the rest of the world.

This is achieved through a combination of Augmented Reality, Industrial IoT, Product Lifecycle Management and CAD solutions.