Digital manufacturing at the IfM

By Professor Andy Neely, Head of IfM


One of the challenges of digital manufacturing is that it means different things to different people. For some, it’s all about smart factories and rapid prototyping. For others the emphasis is on distributed manufacturing, or supply chain optimisation or on delivering complex services with real-time asset monitoring. Whatever the particular focus of your company or sector, the key to digital manufacturing is being able to take advantage of the opportunities that digital technologies and data-driven processes can bring. And for many organisations the biggest impact of digitalisation will come from outside – when a competitor or new entrant uses it to change the rules of the game.


We know it’s going to happen. We have already seen it in the consumer world. We read and listen to music online, we buy things from Amazon, we hail cabs from Uber and we use Airbnb when we travel. As customers, we know what digitised data and a well-designed platform can do for us. Our expectations have been raised.


We are also living in turbulent times. The global economy is under pressure. China’s growth is slowing. How Brexit will play out is contributing to uncertainty and to fluctuating exchange rates.


Amongst all the talk, two things are clear. First, digitalisation will have an impact on all aspects of manufacturing, right across the value chain. Second, there will be winners and losers. When a sector has been digitalised it has been disrupted. For the incumbent companies this presents a threat as well as an opportunity. And it is precisely why the IfM is well placed to help companies address the challenges they face.

IfM research

We have been researching aspects of digital manufacturing for more than twenty years. Indeed, Duncan McFarlane, Head of the IfM’s Distributed Information and Automation Lab (see page 15) was part of the team that coined the term ‘Internet of Things’ all the way back in the twentieth century. In recent years we have added to his team’s work on IoT, smart logistics and big data analytics, with other research areas such as additive manufacturing processes, digital supply chains, data-driven services and how – by understanding where the value lies – companies can change their business models in order to exploit these new technologies. Eoin O’Sullivan and his team at the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (page 8) are looking at the policy environment in which all this innovation is taking place and contributing to the development of the UK’s industrial strategy.


We thought that it would be useful to give you a glimpse of some of our research in this area for the IfM Review. But for reasons of space this is just part of the story. There’s nothing here, for example, on additive manufacturing from a technology, design or business model perspective. Tim Minshall, the newly appointed Head of the IfM’s Centre for Technology Management, is a member of the steering group currently developing the UK strategy for additive manufacturing, due to be published in April 2017. There’s also nothing on distributed manufacturing. Or on the risks associated with digitalisation of which cyber-security is clearly significant. Or on the implications for business model innovation. These are all topics we will cover in future issues.

How we can help

I see our role as two-fold. As researchers, our job is to try to have the big ideas that are derived from a rigorous evidence-based understanding of the here and now. That might be thinking about how the pharmaceutical sector could transform the way it delivers care to patients. Or how machines in factory networks could co-operate with each other using their own ‘social network of things’. Or how to 3D print new advanced materials at the microscale. Or how policymakers can best support the digitalisation of manufacturing.


However brilliant an idea it’s not going to make a difference unless it is put into practice. And that’s the other equally important half of our job – making sure that industry and government benefit from this new thinking. Arguably, one of the things that’s distinctive about the IfM approach derives from the fact that we are part of the Engineering Department. Our engineering ethos is not only to spot a problem, but to understand it and fix it.


So we are trying to develop a vision of a digital future and help companies in the here and now understand both the opportunities that digital manufacturing brings and the challenges they need to overcome. The work Jag Srai has been doing (see page 11) to develop a set of digital scenarios against which companies can measure their aspirations and current performance has been designed to do just that.


In my own area, the Cambridge Service Alliance has been looking at the internet of things and big data analytics and their effect on service businesses. Firms are looking for new digitally-enabled business models that deliver customised solutions whether its smart health services, smart transport solutions or guaranteeing uptime, availability and output from complex equipment.


One of the ways of helping to mitigate risk is by the development of standards. Through our dissemination arm, IfM ECS, we have been working with BSI (see page 18) to look at how standards and good practice are going play a vital role in supporting the development of manufacturing both in the UK and globally.


Digital skills and leadership

A lack of digital skills and awareness is one of the challenges faced by companies. We have recently created a new lectureship (not something that happens very often at Cambridge) in Digital Manufacturing. Dr Alexandra Brintup took up her post in September and her appointment will not only bolster our research activity in this area but also ensure that our students emerge with a strong foundation in all things digital.And on page 22, I share some of my thinking, based on the work we have been doing in the Service Alliance, on how manufacturing leaders need to change in a digital age.


If some of the large companies we work with are struggling with how to exploit digitalisation, at the other end of the spectrum there are legions of entrepreneurs looking to be the next big digital disruptor. And Cambridge, Europe’s largest technology cluster, is one of the best places to be doing that. The alumni interview on page 25 gives us a fascinating insight into that world of possibility and how ideaSpace, the University’s hub for early-stage innovation (with management support from IfM ECS) is providing a place in which new ideas can flourish and where companies are being ‘born digital’. All thanks to the vision of IfM alumnus and entrepreneur, Stew McTavish.


IfM Review Issue 6 Articles


 Digital Manufacturing at the IfM






the digitalisation of manufacturing economies


The digitalisation of manufacturing economies





How bright is your digital future?






A social network of things

Getting smart with digital






The importance of standards in a digital world

The importance of standards in a digital world






Manufacturing leadership in the age of digital disruption

Manufacturing leadership in the age of digital disruption






A disruptive influence








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Date published

8 December 2016

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