Technology to play vital role for UK manufacturers' future growth after Brexit

During a roundtable discussion, British experts said technologies like IoT, AR, VR and robotics may provide some certainty in a turbulent year.

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The United Kingdom officially withdrew from the European Union on Jan. 31 and manufacturers are still grappling with the wide-ranging ramifications of the decision. 

But during a roundtable discussion in Bracknell, England, on Tuesday, researchers and representatives from some of the country's biggest manufacturers said new technologies like IoT, AR, VR and robotics may be able to help them withstand the coming market uncertainty.

"Voice-driven tech, augmented and virtual reality and robotics technologies will all help manufacturing firms increase productivity and pave the way for growth in 2020. However, they must be married with the right systems such as ERP to be able to reap the benefits these technologies offer," said Mark Hughes, regional vice president of the UK & Ireland at software company Epicor.  

"From speaking with people, it seems they're all just getting on with it—in fact, a lot of firms are seeing potential opportunities that could arise as a result of Brexit."

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The event, titled, "Is UK manufacturing ready to harness the power of new IoT technologies?," brought together experts for a discussion on the top manufacturing trends for 2020 and how manufacturers can prepare themselves for drastic changes to the British economy.

The speakers included Hughes, University of Cambridge professor of industrial information engineering Duncan McFarlane, Epicor vice president of engineering Stephen Edginton and Jos Greeve, ICT manager at Boers & Co FineMetalworking Group. 

They highlighted technology trends that will play a vital role in helping UK manufacturers' future growth, which included strategic IT, cloud-based systems, and more.

IT advancements will become an integral and strategic part of manufacturing this year as the full impacts of Brexit are realized in the coming months, Edginton added.

"Our daily lives outside of work are shaping our expectations with IT. The interface with technology is disappearing and instead becoming more natural and ubiquitous, we are conditioned to touch, speak and be recognised. Business should look to introduce this new technology when it adds value and that value comes in many forms," Edginton said.

"If you were to build a new factory now and you need a system, you probably wouldn't go and buy an on-premise piece of software. Manufacturers today want elastically scalable software solutions that can just plug in, that's always kept up to date, and that you can pay for as you use it." 

Technology like IoT and robotics, which are already playing huge roles in manufacturing globally, will play an even bigger part in helping British manufacturers keep up with competitors across Europe. 

Hughes told the roundtable that instead of "battening down the hatches," UK manufacturers should use Brexit as an opportunity to invest internally and "ride out the Brexit storm."

Manufacturing companies now have no choice but to address business problems with tech, but it has to be done in a strategic way and can't be done by blindly introducing new tools and systems, multiple speakers said during the roundtable.

Companies will also need to rely on a new generation of employees to help train senior management and assist in transitioning manufacturers into new digital-first systems.

As the price of technologies like AR and VR continue to decrease, accessibility will increase, allowing manufacturers to harness the power of systems that can streamline their services and boost efficiency.

Cloud systems will have to be introduced to manufacturers because the cost savings and increased business agility they afford companies will be too important to ignore, Hughes added.

Multiple speakers said the market uncertainty caused by Brexit had cast a shadow over the future of manufacturing in the UK, but that technology could help ameliorate some of the most urgent issues.

"Thanks to increasingly human interfaces, including voice recognition systems, industrial technology has the potential to become more 'naturalised,' and therefore, easier for firms to embrace," McFarlane said.

"It's about identifying the business challenge, finding the best solution for that need, and then—and only then—choosing the technology that will help deliver that solution." 

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