Manufacturing Knowledge

Published on September 23rd, 2015 | by David Bott

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Manufacturing Knowledge

Manufacturing is everywhere in the news these days. It is generally alleged that we were once good at it, but lost our way and that the future prosperity of the United Kingdom is dependent on regaining our prowess at it. But what is it?

Manufacturing is defined as the production of merchandise for use or sale using labour and machines, tools, chemical and biological processing, or formulation. In other words it is turning raw materials into things that we have value for – and will therefore buy. But what most people mean when they talk about manufacturing is the industry that carries out these processes on the gargantuan scale required to satisfy the needs of 7 billion people.

Manufacturing really came of age during the industrial revolution, when we learned how to make the things we needed in large numbers and at a consistent quality and turned the transformation of raw materials into finished goods from a craft into an industry. Once we had got the basic idea, improvements came thick and fast. The production line enabled the sequential assembly of complex goods from sub-assemblies. We learned to contract out the manufacture of specialised components and build supply chains to ensure the overall process was efficient. We gained manufacturing knowledge and went global. And we occasionally lost our way.

At its heart manufacturing is the process for turning raw materials into finished goods. It is therefore something like a translational competence – not a technology and not a market.

There is also much talk about the “digital industries”, so what are they. There is no widely agreed definition of what constitutes digital industries.

I have always subscribed to the doctrine that data has no real value – it is the combination and analysis of data that leads to information that has value. (there is a continuation that says information is further distilled into knowledge and finally into wisdom, but that’s another subject). In that respect, there is little these days that is not digital.

Even manufacturing has been largely digitised. In the chemical industry where I grew up, plants are controlled by computers that measure all the necessary (and understood) parameters and control the conditions to optimise the efficiency of the process. In the classic manufacturing industries, most processes, whether subtractive or additive, are controlled by computers so that every object turns out exactly the same.

In health, modern diagnostics are dependent on computers and algorithms to present the necessary information to the doctor for interpretation, and we are increasingly considering how to store all the information about an individual in a single place to make diagnosis and treatment more effective.

In what are widely (but inaccurately) called the creative industries much of the content is now stored and traded in a digital format. In retail, our transactions and our preferences are stored digitally and analysed to encourage us to buy more of things we might like.

In essence then, the digital industries take data, analyse and combine them into information and knowledge that we have value for – and will therefore buy. Like manufacturing, it is not a market or a technology but a competence we need to turn something of little or no intrinsic value and turn it into something we desire.

A digital, networked market is transforming every facet of global manufacturing, from design, validation and manufacturing, to personalisation and marketing. Is it any wonder that WMG is applying its 35 years of experience and insight of manufacturing into digital?

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David Bott is Principal Fellow at WMG. After 26 years with BP, Courtaulds and ICI, spent in both their corporate centres and business units, David began a love affair with start-ups 10 years ago. He was diverted into spending 7 years setting up and directing the Technology Strategy Board (now rebranded as Innovate UK), the UK's innovation agency.

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