VIEWPOINT: Digital manufacturing is a huge opportunity to put Sheffield on the national and global map

The keynote speaker at the inaugural Sheffield Digital awards, WANdisco founder David Richards, is clear about the connection between digital and manufacturing: it is a huge opportunity to put Sheffield on the national and global map.

Thursday, 2nd May 2019, 16:45 pm
Updated Thursday, 2nd May 2019, 16:51 pm
Creating a digital twin of a jet engine at Factory 2050.

Rather than two distinct ‘sectors’ competing against one another for public funds and the public limelight, David sees their fates as inextricably bound up in what is fast becoming known as the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0.

Sheffield, he said, is a key player in this revolution: “a city on the brink of an industrial renaissance, repositioning itself as an international centre for the aerospace, automotive and software industries. Home to cutting-edge research and manufacturing centres, innovative businesses and a pipeline of talent, there was nowhere better for Boeing – one of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers – to open its first manufacturing site in Europe.”

Viewpoint is written by Ben Morgan, head of the integrated manufacturing group at the AMRC.

What works for Boeing works for its supply chain, and the thousands of other small and medium sized manufacturers across the North of England struggling to understand what industrial digitalisation could mean for them. It is also the challenge behind the £350 million funding soon to be released by government to drive the Made Smarter initiative.

This is a huge opportunity to put Sheffield digital on the national and global map.

By linking digital and manufacturing we create a brand that no other region in the UK can claim, and one that gives the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District and the emerging Global Innovation Corridor something distinctive to shout about.

We need to be ambitious in our thinking, and the Sheffield Digital Awards show just how ambitious the region’s digital community can be. By explicitly making the digital meet manufacturing connection, we can, in David’s words: “supercharge our growth and reinforce Sheffield as a pioneering city in advanced software engineering and manufacturing.”

AMRC apprentice trainee learning cobotics.

So, what do we do next? Collaboration between industry and academia and partnerships with software firms and digital movements need to be brought together to derive a strategy that will truly revolutionise manufacturing. Last year, with little fanfare and modest hopes, the AMRC launched a “Digital Meet Manufacturing” initiative to do just that. We opened our doors to ambitious, forward looking software firms who want to forge relationships with manufacturers.

These relationships, such as the one we have formed with Razor, one of Sheffield’s most ambitious  digital companies, are trailblazers for what can happen when digital companies get out of their own comfort zones and engage with advanced manufacturing.

When Razor’s MD rings me and says, “We thought we could do it 20 times quicker but have worked out a way to process it 4,000 times quicker” that’s when you know you have partnered with the right guys. This project with Razor and a major aerospace manufacturer is doing ground-breaking research and accelerating UK manufacturing with the power of big data, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, fuelled by coffee and pizza.

These developments enable engineers to look at manufacturing problems through a totally new digital lens. Investment in new technology is being unlocked through earth shattering improvements that don’t just “make” the business case, they blow it out of the water.

Roisin Chapman-Allison is an AMRC machining apprentice at Boeing Sheffield.

As David said, Sheffield and the North is at the heart of this. We are on the cusp of something big, an industrial revolution fuelled not by coal and steel but by the creative talents of disruptors who make the connection between digital and manufacturing.

If we look inside the Boeing ‘factory of the future’ in Sheffield what we see is the incredible opportunities advanced manufacturing opens up for the city’s digital community, and the policy makers behind the region’s Digital Action Plan published last year. Boeing Sheffield, with its fully digital-capable infrastructure and state-of-the-art machinery, is a herald for what’s to come in manufacturing around the world. Long before the first concrete was poured and the steel framework erected, simulation engineers at the AMRC produced virtual production system models to optimise space, materials and machinery. These unlocked the factory’s capability to increase productivity by 50 per cent in the future. Schooled in the languages of the gaming industry, these engineers are now creating a digital twin of the factory to turn simulation into reality.

For Boeing, this digital thread was specifically designed to de-risk and accelerate data based  technologies to transform systems and processes across the enterprise to enable better decision-making, improve productivity, reduce cost and generate revenue.

Boeing Sheffield’s factory network is the backbone of enabling Industry 4.0 with the ability to interconnect, collect and share data among all computing assets within the factory. This strategy allows Boeing to evaluate these technologies for use worldwide across its other sites.

This means Sheffield is not only making and exporting more than 100 different high-tech actuation system components for 737 and 767 jets from raw materials sourced in the UK: it is also exporting digital know-how and technology made in Sheffield.

The Sheffield Digital Awards and the upcoming festival are clear signs that the region’s digital community is on the rise; gaining confidence and a voice. Compared to other big cities, however, as the region’s Digital Action Plan makes clear, the sector still remains small. Imagine what could be achieved if the two communities – digital and manufacturing – came together to explore challenges and opportunities that enabled them to grow faster together.

Advanced manufacturing, will go from strength to strength with its current digital partnerships (often from outside the region), but so much more could be achieved with the region’s disruptive software companies and start-ups working alongside the AMRC, having coffee, eating pizza and hacking the emerging challenges that are so difficult to solve. It really is time for digital to meet manufacturing.