ESRC’s Dr Adam Luqmani shares his opinions around ISCF ‘Made Smarter’ and digitalisation to solve real problems for manufacturing businesses

 

We recently spoke to Dr Adam Luqmani, Senior Portfolio Manager, Interdisciplinarity and Impact with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which is part of UK Research and Innovation about his thoughts on the ISCF manufacturing Made Smarter initiative.

Industrial Digitalisation and the Social Science Factor

 

Later in 2019, it is anticipated that the UK government will announce a third round of Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) funding, to support industrial-academic research and innovation projects. One of the new topic areas (commercialising quantum) has just been announced. The shortlisted topics were described in February and can be seen here. Of particular note, we see one topic called “manufacturing made smarter” which will put the UK at the forefront of industrial digitalisation, aiming for a 30% boost in manufacturing productivity by 2030.

What is industrial digitalisation? In the Made Smarter Review it is defined as “the application of digital tools and technologies to the value chains of businesses who make things”. What does that look like in practice? There are unlimited possibilities, but here are a few ideas:

  • Using the concept of digital twinning to simulate and predict the performance of products and assets throughout their lifetime.
  • Using advanced data analytics to perfectly match up supply with demand.
  • Using artificial intelligence to optimise production operations and logistics.
  • Using realistic simulations to cheaply and rapidly test components in a virtual environment.
  • Using a cloud-based supply chain management system to track, monitor and manage vast supply networks.

Funding like the ISCF will create opportunities for researchers and industry partners to collaborate and solve problems relating to this challenge. No doubt, there will be a need to create new algorithms, new software packages, new smart devices and sensors, new materials, new design techniques and many other new digital tools. However, we don’t always need something “new” – sometimes we just need to encourage and support people to use the technology and tools we already have available to us. Is digitalisation a technical challenge? In part, yes, but many would agree that it’s also a profoundly social challenge.

The Adoption Challenge

 

New digital tools can be highly disruptive. They could mean a different business model entirely. That could include radical shifts away from product-centric models and towards service-centric ones. It would also mean an increasing need for flexible workforce skills and capabilities. These innovations are exciting in their potential for explosive growth and market capture, but changes are also a step into the unknown. In nearly every circumstance, the barriers to adoption of new technology relate to people – from senior decision makers to factory floor operators, from product design teams to customers and users. If we want to boost productivity by 30% through the application of digital tools, it’s not enough simply to create new ones and walk away. The people who make up our teams, organisations and institutions have to adopt digitalisation and incorporate it into new ways of working – and the regulators who approve and safeguard healthy competition in the manufacturing sector need to accept them too. Even the customers who buy our products need to accept the way in which they are made. Any of these could be the difference between widespread adoption of a new technology, or for that new technology to sit on a shelf unused.

Policy, Regulation and the Wider Context

 

The manufacturing world does not exist in a vacuum. There are countless connections to the wider global context, including supply networks, markets, employees and perhaps most importantly, policy and regulators. Without effective policy and well-engaged regulators, advances in digitalisation can be halted entirely. For example, you might be planning on using advanced simulation techniques to prove performance of a component or device, but what if the regulating body still expects to see physical test results? The only way to ensure that the regulatory environment permits radical progress through digitalisation is to actively engage with regulators. On the policy front, working with policy makers can be a source of competitive advantage. If you have a new technology which significantly reduces waste in production, you could open up a wide gap with your competitors by providing evidence to policy makers and lobbying for tougher regulations on waste.

The Social Science Factor

 

The secret to navigating industrial digitalisation is to recognise the need to work with social scientists. Social scientists work to build understanding of people. In the past, social scientists have developed powerful new tools and concepts for manufacturing such as lean manufacturing, employee forums, market segmentation and stakeholder engagement. Social scientists are typically experienced in working with regulators, government and policy makers.

If you are an engineer, scientist or industrial innovator planning on submitting an application to receive funding in the coming months, you should strongly consider the extent to which your ideas will require consideration of people. Funding such as the ISCF is about solving real problems – not theoretical ones. Demonstrating a solution and making a prototype may be impressive in the laboratory, but it is a mistake to assume that the adoption and implementation of any solution into the complex world of people will happen on its own. My advice: bring in an experienced, interdisciplinary social scientist who understands the technologies involved.

If you would like the Economic and Social Research Council to connect you with relevant social science experts, please get in touch via ISCF@esrc.ukri.org.

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