It's no secret that UK manufacturing is lagging behind its competitors when it comes to the key challenges facing the industry today.

With everything from apprenticeship starts to the relatively slow uptake of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it can often seem like there is no end to the doom and gloom.

For Tim Hulbert, UK vice-president of global industrial gas manufacturer, Air Products, however, there is one way that manufacturers can at least begin to solve some of the issues facing industry. “There’s not enough collaboration and open discussion between manufacturers,” he says. “Take Germany as a contrast. I worked there a few years ago and something that struck me was the connection between smaller companies, larger ones and the government. They have a focus on building networks to gain an understanding of the technologies out there that could bring benefits to the industry in the long-term.”

This is an approach not often taken by manufacturers in the UK, especially when it comes to the often-murky world of research
and development.

Taking a common approach will determine the success of 4IR

There are exceptions to that rule, however. Hulbert points to the work done by the Hereford & Worcester Chamber of Commerce, which encourages local businesses to meet and share ideas on a regular basis. This, he says, has the potential to encourage more collaboration. However, it will only really succeed if manufacturers change their approach to how innovation and R&D is handled.

“Traditionally, R&D has been seen as a very secretive thing for manufacturers, all of whom wanted to keep their information under wraps,” he says. “In today’s ever-changing world, though, there are lots of development areas that will need a pool of resource – not least the practical application of the buzzwords currently swirling around 4IR.

“Common platforms and common approaches will be the key as to whether that takes off or just continues to stay in the ether.

“Companies have to work together or everyone will try to do different things – then we’ll all be scratching our heads wondering
how all the wonderful things we’ve developed will be able to work together. When you then layer on top of that the continued need and importance of producing what customers want, these types of forum and open discussion can actively promote collaboration on ideas.”

British manufacturing’s small-c conservatism may be one reason for this relative lack of enthusiasm for sharing ideas, continues Hulbert, especially when it comes to the adoption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“People are often very interested in hearing about new technologies, but at the same time aren’t necessarily able to automatically see the opportunities it can bring,” he says. “They are used to doing things a certain way, and breaking that habit will take time. The challenge is in translating that technology into tangible benefits. As an industry, we have to highlight those benefits to a wider audience.”

Again, this can be met with a collaborative, open approach, says Hulbert. “In our corner of the industry, at least, there are quite a lot of
‘4IR-ready’ applications being implemented, contrary to the stereotype,” he says. “Whether that’s representative of the wider industry remains to be seen, but it’s vital that these stories are shared to make it at least appear more ‘real’ to a lot of companies, especially SMEs.”

Manufacturing’s skills gap can also benefit from collaboration

Collaboration, therefore, can help prepare manufacturers for the future of their processes. It can also, Hulbert says, help with the future of their workforces. Air Products are one of the world’s leading manufacturers of industrial gases, producing gases including argon, oxygen, helium and CO2.

This year marks the company’s 60th anniversary in the UK, where it employs 1,500 people. Around 75 of those are designated ‘science ambassadors’. “It’s their job to go into schools and colleges to deliver science experiments using industrial gases,” Hulbert explains. “These kinds of experiments really grab young people’s attention and help facilitate further discussion about careers in manufacturing and engineering.”

Schemes like this are vital in dispelling the myth that manufacturing is an attractive industry for young people to enter into.

“As children grow through their school careers, helping them visualise the opportunities in manufacturing is vital,” says Hulbert. “We need to work together to inspire them into becoming interested in the relevant subjects to create a long-term future workforce. The competition in terms of careers for young people nowadays means manufacturing has to work harder than most to attract them – and with the perception of being a dirty, boring and dangerous industry to work in, that won’t be easy.

“When you look at the work a manufacturer does, and the positive impact it can have on society, the environment and the world as a whole, as well as the variety of skills that will be present within it, it’s quite inspiring. Yet if you ask a 14-year-old, ‘what is an engineer’, you’ll most likely get a very different answer to the reality. Everyone in manufacturing should be doing all they can to change that perception.”

Air Products are also using their 60th anniversary to host a ‘Space Camp’ this summer. This will involve local schoolchildren visiting Air Products’ UK manufacturing sites for a week of science and engineering-based activities, the culmination of which will see them send balloons to the edge of space. “We think things like that are vital for companies to look to do,” insists Hulbert. “Even if those children don’t become future employees of Air Products, at the very least it will create recognition in the wider community that manufacturing is a good thing.”

Ditching the stereotypes

While UK manufacturing may be ditching its ‘oily rags’ image and moving towards the technology-driven world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, its true success will only be achieved by working together – both to collaborate on new ideas and to inspire the next generation. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution isn’t a vision of the future,” warns Hulbert. “It’s the reality of manufacturing today. We’re moving away from many of the old-fashioned stereotypes, but can still be guilty of working in siloes on our own problems and challenges. The more we can work together, the more we can achieve, and the more we can show tomorrow’s manufacturers what this industry is really like.”