Recently, we were part of a webinar delivered by Make UK about the future of manufacturing. The discussion highlighted a number of key transformation topics the industry has experienced over the last year, and emphasised the importance of the role of government. The ability to accelerate innovation and digital technology adoption in an agile way were also raised as key opportunities for the sector. At present, we believe the manufacturing industry has a fantastic opportunity to reimagine and reshape a new way of working, ready for the new normal – using technology and data and analytics to drive innovation, productivity and resilience.

We spoke to Stephen Phipson, CEO of Make UK; Phil Hadfield, Country Director of Rockwell Automation; Ruth Nic Aodih, Executive Director at McLaren Automotive; Rina Ladva, Sector Lead, Manufacturing and Resources UK at Microsoft; Thierry Malleret, Managing Partner from The Monthly Barometer; and Juergen Maier, Chair of Made Smarter.

The HoloLens 2 allows remote support in the manufacturing industry. Technology will be a key driver of innovation.What have been some of the positives to emerge in manufacturing this year?

While the events of this year created disruption to supply chains, processes and our daily working lives, it has been refreshing to see how manufacturing business leaders quickly adapted to reflect the new ways of working.

As we return to work and operations in the new normal, we need to take advantage of these new technologies, and we are already working with industry bodies like the HVMC and AMRC to do so. Data and analytics can help us engage customers in new ways or even create more resilient supply chains. Digital Twins and AI can help us build more agile factories, and digital workspaces can help our teams stay connected no matter where they are, securely. During the session the panel shared their thoughts on the opportunities and challenges in these areas:

Stephen Phipson: “One advantage has been to heighten the awareness of digital possibilities. We need to dispel the myth about this being incredibly complicated and expensive for SMEs. The other opportunity is the UK is a world leader in innovation in manufacturing. We need support to scale up.”

Ruth Nic Aoidh: “There is a huge amount of innovation happening in the UK and we need to bring it to market. We took the Ventilator Challenge at McLaren; one of the things it highlighted was the ‘can do’ attitude that exists in UK manufacturing already. If we work cross sector, we can achieve anything and hopefully we will see more collaboration as well.”

Rina Ladva: “One of the challenges we faced at Microsoft was not just innovating but adopting and developing what technologies we already had. Microsoft was involved in the Ventilator Challenge as well. We brought together companies who were competitors in the past, to leverage data and collaborate. Some of the collaborators never met in person. Another benefit was that things were now getting done quicker.”

Phil Hadfield: “The pandemic has really emphasised the importance of adopting digital technologies with open standards to help manufacturing achieve greater flexibility. We’re having more virtual meetings, more remote maintenance and digital modelling; we’re using digital tools to accelerate production and improve cost efficiency and to minimise human interaction in the workplace. We also need to contextualise data from smart devices more and turn it into strategic information.”

Thierry Malleret: “The pandemic has given us a chance to reset our world. The race is on to a more sustainable future. It will be accelerated by rising activism of the younger generation. A new phenomenon is the combination of youth activism and investor activism and this will accelerate over the coming months and years.”

Jurgen Maier: “COVID-19 has, no question, accelerated the need for the adoption of digital technology. But the implementation has taken place in what I’d call ‘light tech’ areas, like remote monitoring and web conferences. In terms of ‘deep tech’,  less than 20% of manufacturers are really engaging with this more complex technology. We’re brilliant innovators in Britain but we’re not very good at being integrators of technologies.”

This question then led on to policy. In order for the UK organisations to remain competitive, they need to make incremental changes to attract the right skills, talent, tech and leadership. Currently, nearly half (46%) of British organisations fall into the worst performing category, posing a real threat to UK prosperity.

What should be the role of the government?

Another key discussion topic in the session was the role of the government. The panel concluded that in order to be successful, UK organisations need strong support from the government. They can help with access to the rights tools and resources or run fund initiatives to help enable the right set of digital and data skills. Most importantly, they need to incentivise organisations in the long-term to make these changes to support the UK recovery and emerge more prosperous and drive innovation.

Stephen Phipson: “ The government has done well short term with things like the job retention scheme. But over successive administrations, we have not been long term enough… Manufacturing is a long term game. The French and Germans are taking a much longer term view with regards to support. The UK recovery is going to take longer than government first estimated.”

Phil Hadfield: “I think the situation accelerates the need for manufacturing to train employees to leverage a digital future. Manufacturing also needs to have an ongoing dialogue with academic institutions and to make engineering more appealing and diverse. This all requires help from the government.”

Rina Ladva: “I think there is definitely more we can do with government support around common data platforms and data mechanisations. We’re hearing from our customers about getting the data strategy right. We also need to empower the next generation of skills and drive digital transformation quicker.”

Ruth Nic Aodih: “The government offered welcome support in the initial stages of the pandemic. But we’re not in recovery yet. I would ask two things of the government: firstly, we need to know what the medium to long term support will look like… Recovery is optimistically 18 months away. Secondly, I’d implore government to look at the supply chain… If we don’t support the suppliers and technology-leading SMEs, we’re going to see a massive impact on the bigger manufacturers. So I would say to government, what happens next?”

Thierry Malleret: “If the UK does not embrace wholeheartedly the fourth (digital) industrial revolution, it is doomed to fail. An industrial strategy or policy doesn’t give you a competitive advantage. But you do need one. Success will depend on things like how you relate to trading partners, how you harness the power of globalisation and the Brexit outcome. But we don’t know yet how Brexit will take shape. You can’t consider industrial policies in a silo; it has to relate to other circumstances.”

Jurgen Maier: “It’s not all doom and gloom; I think the situation will rally the industry, people will get incredibly passionate and, through innovation, we will find a way to get through this period. However, it would be incredibly helpful as an antidote to all of this, especially since we have Brexit on top of everything else, if we could learn more from Germany and France and inject a bit more of their long termism and their scale of investment.”

Creating a blueprint for UK competitiveness and innovation

A woman working on a laptop at home. Hybrid working will be a key driver of innovation.A clear call to action from the panel’s industry experts is now is the time to build on our people’s skills and technology to drive innovation for not just recovery, but to create a competitive and exciting shared future for the UK.

This was emphasised in a recent study by Goldsmiths, University of London in partnership with Microsoft. It found that the UK economy could receive a £48 billion boost if companies leveraged digital technology to enable agile changes to employee and cultural transformation.

In the research, Clare Barclay, CEO of Microsoft UK, said: “UK organisations face a unique moment…The tech intensity that was starting to gather pace before the pandemic struck has become turbocharged – to keep up, leaders must act decisively and quickly. Small changes in approach to investment, people and technology can quickly boost the UK’s competitiveness, giving our economy the best chance of success in the post-COVID and post-Brexit era.”

To successfully navigate the current climate, and importantly thrive in the future, there is a need to deliver against four key areas:

  • Talent
  • Technology
  • Future readiness
  • The ecosystem.

Together, these four dimensions represent the key ingredients in any organisation’s future success.

In the research there was huge emphasis on the fourth area – the ecosystem and partnerships. It found that a collaborative approach, is absolutely essential to accelerate innovation and industry transformation, both at pace, and at scale. This is why Rockwell Automation and Microsoft are committed to working together to help customers deliver the right skills and technology to successfully navigate the current uncertain climate in manufacturing, and prepare as well as possible for the  new normal that is already emerging.

About the authors

Rik, a man posing for the cameraRik joined Microsoft at the start of 2020, with responsibility for Microsoft’s strategy across manufacturing, energy and resources in the UK. He is Microsoft’s lead when working with regulators, industry bodies, industry partners, and our largest customers to ensure Microsoft enables the needs of industry. Since joining, Rik has become a board member in techUK’s Smart Energy & Utilities working group, techUK’s Digital Twin steering board, UK Research & Innovation Manufacturing Made Smarter board, and the BIM4Water Digital Skills steering group. Prior to Microsoft, Rik worked at Cisco for 13 years, with global lead roles in energy and resource industries, IoT and security, and digital transformation.

He has an MBA in international leadership and is currently studying for a Masters in Green Economy.



Photo of Phil Hadfield, a man with dark hair in a navy business suit with a light blue shirt and blue tie smiling at the cameraPhil studied with the Open University, where he gained his BSC (Hons) in Engineering, in 2000.

He joined Rockwell Automation in 2005 and has over 20 years of automation sales experience in a variety of different industries. He is responsible for overseeing continued growth of Rockwell Automation products, solutions and services in the UK, and leading the continued expansion of The Connected Enterprise principles that help its customers expand human possibility in the era of Industry 4.0.

A registered STEM ambassador he is passionate about enthusing the next generation of engineers, Phil has also recently been engaged across EMEA in a strategic role relating to the company’s investment into PTC.

Follow Phil on LinkedIn where he publishes his blogs and other company news, and posts regularly on issues most important for UK industry and its growing importance to the UK economy.