The EEF reports that manufacturers are suffering from problems with the UK digital infrastructure. Their primary concern is that the UK will be unable to compete in what is being called the 4th industrial revolution due to costs and connectivity issues around broadband.
The importance of reliable and affordable connectivity is crucial to Industry 4.0. Originally defined by the German Government, the Wikipedia description of Industry 4.0 is:
Industry 4.0, Industrie 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution, is a collective term embracing a number of contemporary automation, data exchange and manufacturing technologies. It had been defined as ‘a collective term for technologies and concepts of value chain organization’ which draws together Cyber-Physical Systems, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Services.
There are six key findings highlighted in the release:
- 91% of companies say internet access as essential as electricity and water
- Half of companies say connection costs have gone up in last two years
- 25% of small companies, half of medium and 89% of large paying more than £5k per annum
- Two thirds of companies plan to invest in more internet connected capital
- Two thirds say current connectivity is ok for now, but over half of companies say connectivity not adequate for future needs
- Only a fifth of companies believe UK is at forefront of internet connectivity
According to Ms Lee Hopley, EEF Chief Economist: “Manufacturers need best in class provision if Britain is to take advantage of the next industrial revolution and government cannot afford to think it is job done. While the quality of networks isn’t currently an issue, companies are paying inflated sums to have proper access and are fearful they will not have competitive access five years’ down the line.
“To date, most of the focus has been on future household internet access despite the economic returns from better internet connectivity being higher if businesses are prioritised. The Government should urgently reverse this trend and come forward with concrete steps to ensure the UK has a modern business environment that enables us to outperform in the digital race.”
More detail needed about the state of infrastructure
Hopley and recent surveys among EEF members say that the current quality of networks is not an issue. This will be a surprise to many commentators including Members of Parliament who consistently berate UK connectivity as being unfit for purpose. Later in the release it states: “the survey also highlights concerns over future broadband provision with over half of companies saying their connection is not adequate for their expected needs over the next five years (only a third said it was).”
It would be interesting to understand how much of the future concerns are based on projections of broadband requirements. For much of the industrial IoT the current bandwidth requirements are fairly low based on current and previous generations of technology. The next generation of sensor technology will change that as they are set to be more complex and have two-way communications. Data will not only flow back to the operations teams but with many more sensors, that flow will grow substantially.
There will also be a much greater use of communication with remote sensors to constantly tune them for optimum performance. While the increase per sensor will be small, when multiplied by hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of sensors the increase is going to require a significant amount of bandwidth.
It would have been interesting to see more detail around the type of connectivity being used. For example, fixed lines versus mobile broadband, how many companies are using leased lines compared to ADSL as well as copper versus fibre. A breakdown across the UK of those members who responded to the survey would have given an interesting view on urban versus rural locations.
Understanding mobile versus fixed is very important for IoT. While the focus is on 4G and the forthcoming 5G standard that will being higher speeds, there is still a place for technologies such as 2G. Many older sensors only connect using 2G which is particularly effective when it comes to building penetration than 3G. For manufacturers where the sensors can be deep inside their production facilities and hard to connect to network cabling, 2G has been a working solution.
While some manufacturers worry about the risk of 2G being turned off, it is not likely to happen soon in the UK. There are a number of reasons for this such as coverage in very remote rural areas. A bigger concern will be on the cost of redesigning networks to ensure that 4G and 5G are able to work inside industrial environments as sensors and mobile networks evolve.
EEF not clear as to where the costs have come from
These breakdowns would also have given much more understanding of the cost claims in the release. EEF says that: “half of medium size companies are paying over £5000 per annum to gain proper access (this rises to 89% for large companies).” However, it doesn’t define proper access, the speed of the connection or whether this cost is per connection. This means it is not necessarily easy to understand how the costs are calculated.
Again it would have be interesting to see future projections from companies as to how they see their cost of connectivity rising. For those using mobile broadband it could be that they need to move to packages that allow greater aggregation of bandwidth across devices. Alternatively, for fixed broadband across multiple sites, the use of technologies such as free space laser connections which can operate at gigabit speed would reduce reliance on commercial broadband.
EEF wants four things from government
At the end of the release the EEF has set out four recommendations that it wants the UK government to look at when deciding on the next phase of the national broadband strategy:
- Task the National Infrastructure Commission with assessing the UK’s digital infrastructure network and outline an investment path that will see the UK consistently delivering internationally competitive internet access to businesses
- Launch a review of competition for business broadband, with a particularly focus on leased lines, with the aim of getting the cost to businesses falling over this Parliament
- Ensure Innovate UK has the funding to work with industry to develop cluster networks of early adopters by easing the uptake of digital technologies across industrial supply chains, this should include supporting investment in physical industry 4.0 demonstrators
- Be proactive in pushing for full implementation of the digital single market in goods and services across the EU to deliver benefits for UK businesses
While there are some mixed messages in this release and a need for better clarification of some issue, the underlying message to the UK government is clear. Cut costs, prepare for the next wave of industrial connectivity or accept that UK manufacturing will face yet another decline pushing it further down the international scale.
If the latter happens then all the efforts to stabilise the UK manufacturing industry that have taken place over the last decade will have been in vain.