North West has key role to play in fourth industrial revolution

Siemens factory

Juergen Maier is in no doubt about the key role the North West has to play in the much-heralded ‘fourth Industrial revolution’ and the tools it needs to succeed in that task.

A key industrial advisor to the government’s Industrial Strategy team and a leading supporter of the Northern Powerhouse drive, the Siemens chief executive says: “We have got make this our own. It has to be Northern led.”

He wants businesses across the region to embrace and embed technology, information and data into everything they do. And he urges its manufacturers to help lead this charge to the future.
Maier believes that this “Made Smarter” revolution, as he calls it, could see 175,000 new skilled jobs being created in the next 10 years.

The UK boss of German engineering giant Siemens, which has its UK manufacturing headquarters in Manchester and a major operation in Congleton, Cheshire, headed a government commissioned review on industrial digitalisation.

It reported that Britain’s manufacturing sector could unlock £455bn over the next decade and create thousands of jobs if it cracks the revolution that everyone is talking about.

At its heart are new productivity-boosting technologies including robotics, 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, sensors and artificial intelligence.

Maier believes the region is poised to deliver, if it gets the conditions needed for success right.

“It is about having local leadership, collaboration that really gets behind this and creates the right ambition and helps create the right support mechanisms for this to happen,” he says.

He says things are moving in the right direction. “We are starting to create a bit of that momentum; we are starting to see the support mechanisms.”

Juergen Maier

Maier says that it is vital manufacturing SMEs are given the support they need to “help them on their journey” to begin adopting the new technologies that will help boost their productivity.

The government has announced that £20m will go towards a pilot ‘Made Smarter’ scheme in the North West, which Maier is leading and which is aimed at increasing uptake of digital technology among manufacturing supply chains.

Another area he is keen to see development on is the creation of a better network of technology demonstrators – places business owners and leaders can see these new developments at work, giving them an insight into how they could adopt and benefit from them.

Earlier this year he warned that a major obstacle to the Made Smarter drive was a lack of awareness amongst SMEs with figures showing just eight per cent of manufacturing firms having an understanding of ‘industry 4.0’ or digitalisation.

The issue of skills is yet another battleground for the Smarter Revolution. Maier says: “It is a challenge we all wrestle with, again a lot of it comes back to ambition and leadership.
“We have to invest in young people. The pace of change is so fast that if you are not upskilling, you are going to become irrelevant.

“It is about ambition, there needs to be real intent. Businesses, quite frankly, have to get out there and invest in their people. There are no short cuts to this.

“People also have to take responsibility and put themselves in the best place to be part of this. It’s the responsibility of everyone.

“It is a revolution and if you are going to be part of it then skills are fundamental.”

All these changes are happening with the shadow of Brexit looming large. But Maier says that whatever the political landscape manufacturers need to stay focused on maximising the potential of the technological advances.

He says: “There is not much I can do as a business leader to really shape the outcome of Brexit. I can put my opinions out there but I can’t get involved in the negotiations in Brussels.
“What I can do is get involved in driving this successful revolution which will happen whatever we do in Brexit.”

The UK business he leads continues to invest in its operations and its people. Siemens employs 15,000 people in the UK and is strong across the North of England.

It is a partner at the AMRC in Sheffield. Its Congleton plant manufactures electronic variable-speed drives, mainly for export, and is one of its most productive operations worldwide.

In Hull, Siemens has made a major investment in an industry-leading operation to manufacture giant offshore wind turbine blade turbine blades.

And in March the business signed a long-term agreement to lease a 67 acre site in Goole as part of its plans to establish a new state-of-the-art factory to manufacture and commission trains.

It could mean an investment of up to £200m and the creation of up to 700 people in skilled engineering and manufacturing roles.

Around 1,700 indirect jobs are expected to be created throughout the UK supply chain.

Maier says: “This investment has the potential to have a tremendous impact on the Yorkshire economy and the North of England as a whole.”

And he points to the investment in infrastructure being seen in the region, citing transport and clean energy as two areas of growth which are benefitting manufacturers.

He adds: “We are beginning to see a stronger appetite for manufacturing to invest in digital technologies and automation to improve our competitiveness and productivity.”