Big data, the Internet of Things and 3D printing will play an ever-increasing role in the future of British manufacturing, but impending skills shortages could have a significant impact on realising their potential, a government report has warned.
It added that cyber security threats also presented risk to the sector, urging manufacturing businesses to continue to take them into account as the data they generate and store becomes richer and more valuable.
Wednesday's Future of Manufacturing report [PDF] from government think tank Foresight estimates that there will be an additional 80,000 positions for "managerial, professional and associate professional and technical positions in manufacturing," many of which will require science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) qualifications.
A further 800,000 positions will become available by 2020 as people leave or retire from manufacturing. The manufacturing industry represents around 10 percent of UK economic output, employing 2.5 million people.
The report has recommended that the government does more to reach out to young people in order to encourage the update of STEM subjects, as well as enticing foreign students to work in the UK, an issue that has been persistent throughout both the IT sector and the wider economy.
"If people are not attracted to the sector, there are potential implications for skills shortages, which may constrain growth," it warned.
- The Department for Education is looking to tackle many of these problems before they overcome the British economy. In terms of IT skills, it has completely overhauled IT and computing education in the UK, with a brand new, coding and logic-focused computing curriculum due to launch in September 2014. However, concerns about teacher skills and unclear wording remain.
Cyber security is considered a big concern for UK manufacturers, as the storage and analysis of large amounts of data presents opportunities for theft and misuse. The report said the government "would need to consider what further action needs to be taken to address the threat of cyber attack, which increasingly threatens information-rich products and services."
- This is in line with previous reports, which have found that budget cuts in UK businesses have led to them unwittingly increasing their vulnerability to cybercrime.
Internet of Things and big data warnings
The report highlights a number of key IT innovations that are impacting the ways in which the manufacturing sector works. It put particular emphasis on the Internet of Things (IoT) – the consumer-friendly term for machine-to-machine communication, which allows network-connected equipment to co-operate in order to work more efficiently.
Big data is also seen as an area of potential growth for the sector, with the value of well-compiled data growing all the time.
However, the report warned that its potential may not be realised if action is not taken to solve some of its inherent flaws. "Several issues concerning privacy, security, intellectual property, and skills shortages will have to be addressed if the full potential of big data is to be realised," it said.
- Further issues presented by big data have been highlighted by industry leaders, with the term said to be overused and misrepresented by vendors and those not working in IT.
3D printing for reverse engineering
The rise of 3D printing is said to represent an area of opportunity and danger for the industry as the benefits of faster prototyping give way to "reverse engineering, cloning and the production of counterfeit products," the report explained.
- Tesco told V3 in September that it sees potential for 3D printers making appearances in its retail stores for consumers to use, saying it would be a positive step for its business.
Juergen Maier, MD of Siemens UK and Ireland Industry Sector, said the report was timely and should allow the industry to "prepare for key opportunities and challenges, and to ensure we use this changing manufacturing landscape to capture a larger share of global manufacturing than we currently enjoy in the UK."
The report was published with the support of the government's chief scientific adviser Mark Walport, and concludes that the government should act quickly to ensure the manufacturing sector remains relevant to future workers, as well as creating a feeling of "national belief in value creation in facilitating industrial success."
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