COMMENTARY: Driving a Resilient and Sustainable Future: insights from the Digitalizing Manufacturing Conference 2020

In the current COVID era, lessons learned from how digitalization can contribute to resilient and sustainable businesses is a very relevant topic. There is still a lot of uncertainty on how and when the society will recover from the pandemic, how impacts will unfold in the short-term, and one can only speculate about longer term implications to local and global economies.  

On 5 October 2020, I attended a panel discussion from the flagship ‘Digitalizing Manufacturing Conference 2020’, organized by the MTC (Manufacturing Technology Centre); expecting to hear about how digitalization contributes to current and future resilience—in context of rising requirements for sustainability over productivity in the manufacturing industry and its supplier chain. 

This years’ edition of the MTC’s Digitalizing Manufacturing Conference took place virtually and was free—a consequence to the pandemic situation, as most major events adopted such format to reach out to their audience. This year, the conference focused on “reality driving digital” in the manufacturing industry; not just UK-centric but with international reach, local and global perspectives. It covered topics as wide as sustainability, legislation and policy, skill and talent development, factory automation, predictive maintenance, IOT, machine learning to 3D printing, Digital Twins, BIM, etc.

Key takeaway from the “Digital driving a resilient and sustainable future” panel discussion

This topic caught my attention as it positioned the current challenges across the manufacturing landscape and how digital solutions can contribute to building a future-ready ecosystem for these industries.

The panel was moderated by Stephen Phipson CBE, Chair Executive, Make UK who clearly set the scene about:

  • How the pandemic disrupted the industry;
  • Whether this disruption would contribute to accelerate the national and international agenda on sustainability; and,
  • How digitalization contributes to manufacturing resilience, from collaboration to sustainability across the supply chain.

I noted the following key takeaway messages:

1. Ongoing disruption became the norm

Prof. Steve Evans, Director of Research, Institute of Manufacturing, University of Cambridge stated that with the rise of digital, sustainability and biology focus, “disruption will become the norm (…), requiring resilient solutions, systemic change and new thinking”. He illustrated this by the need to shift production from one location to another, even more relevant in response to COVID challenges. Sustainability is not a race to productivity, but a race to early delivery and flexibility—also referring to the “Net-Zero Carbon” 2050 agenda and finding such as:

“Pre-COVID-19, 30% of manufacturers were investing in energy efficiency measures with 40% reporting an increase in profits as a result.”

2. Enabling sustainable change with digital

Mike Hughes, Zone President UK & Ireland, Schneider Electric suggested that the pandemic has been a wake-up call for industries—moving from “an era of efficiency to an era of survival (…) and risk mitigation”. This includes adapting business structures, partnerships, digital-driven mitigations towards sustainable change.

Alexandra Smyth, Senior Program Manager, Royal Academy of Engineering also highlighted that access to knowledge, digital skills and local talents were critical—especially for small and medium enterprises.

Furthermore, Prof. Steve Evans suggested that larger conglomerates have a duty of care to help co-invest and support their supply chain in adopting future-ready sustainable measures.

3. Future-readiness sustainability over productivity

Mike Hughes referred to sustainability as a “license to play”, shifting from benefit realization to future-ready operating models with reduced carbon footprint.

Prof. Steve Evans continued by highlighting the need to work with trusted partners, including those who “pay their bills on time” as managing cashflow is critical in times of disruption. He added that sustainability strategies require “new digital strategies”.

Alexandra Smyth pointed out that it is also about “new business models, not just digital tools”.

Translating sustainability into a PLM perspective

Despite not being a core topic of the conference, the Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) discipline is core to manufacturing and engineering, considering how teams and organizations collaborate, exchange data, procure components, simulate and manage Digital Twins.

As always, I primarily refer to “PLM as a discipline”—not only technical toolsets, but including practices of how essential data is created, used and managed to create value across enterprises and supplier networks.

Putting the above messages in PLM terms:

  1. Ongoing disruption is the norm: PLM presents multiple opportunities responding to enterprise collaboration requirements; are PLM solutions scalable, rapidly and swiftly enough, to timely respond to ongoing disruption?
  2. Enabling sustainable change with digital: PLM fits directly into the sustainability business case; does PLM offer sufficient flexibility in adoption and scalability, new operating models and capabilities?
  3. Future-readiness sustainability over productivity: PLM became a commodity, still with a high level of implementation and adoption inertia; how can PLM be democratized and focus on sustainable value creation, by managing new data types, making better use of data analytics and helping businesses improve their understanding and tracking of sustainability metrics, from the shop-floor to the top-floor?

What are your thoughts?


This is an original publication by:

Momentum PLM and written by Lionel Grealou

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Lionel Grealou

9th October

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