Industry 4.0: Can Ireland shape the future of manufacturing?

25 Sep 2018

Sylvia Leatham from SFI’s I-Form advanced manufacturing research centre. Image: Jason Clarke Photography

Ireland has the expertise to mastermind global distribution, but what else does it need to win at advanced manufacturing and close the gap between invention and delivery?

It will come as news to many that the global supply chain governing the distribution of the new iPhone devices made for Apple on the other side of the world in places such as China and Malaysia is coordinated in Cork. This is a legacy of the longstanding tradition of electronics manufacturing in Cork that goes back to when Apple, at the time itself just a start-up, arrived in the city in the early 1980s to produce Mac computers.

Indeed, as well as coordinating global distribution of the iPhone and a host of other activities from legal to e-commerce, some manufacturing of Mac devices continues to take place in Cork, where Apple now employs more than 6,000 people.

‘The manufacturing sector is the second-largest employer in Ireland and accounts for 36.5pc of GDP and €122.6bn in exports’

There are some who believe, wrongly, that manufacturing in Ireland has had its day. Tell that to the 4,000 or so people at Intel in Leixlip making the next generation of chips for data centres, computers and the state-of-the-art electronics in today’s cars. This is, in fact, their finest hour. Or tell that to the 25,000 people employed in the pharma and biotech industries that export €39bn worth of goods, from drugs to medical devices, annually.

If anything, advanced manufacturing in Ireland could be on the verge of a renaissance moment. That is, of course, if we put the infrastructure in place.

Just a month ago, the Irish Medtech Association (IMA) called on the Irish Government to invest €42m in an advanced discrete manufacturing centre of scale in Budget 2019 to ensure the country keeps its edge in manufacturing. It warned that the industry is being held back by an R&D and innovation gap in the area of discrete manufacturing, which is the production of distinct items such as medical devices.

The Irish manufacturing sector employs 230,000 people across 4,000 businesses, making it the second-greatest employer in Ireland, said IMA director Sinead Keogh. But she warned that Ireland’s nearest competitor, the UK, has already seen the value of investing in advanced manufacturing, with an annual budget of £100m for the Catapult centres already reaping results. For every £1 of government funding, the UK economy is seeing a net benefit of £15, with growth in the industry and jobs added.

Has Ireland the I-Form to win in industry 4.0?

Whether the IMA’s call was by coincidence or by design, yesterday (24 September), the Government launched I-Form, a new Science Foundation Ireland research centre for advanced manufacturing. Hosted by University College Dublin, it represents Government and industry investment of €22.2m.

Forged through partnerships between seven research institutions and 31 companies, I-Form’s mission is to shape the future of manufacturing through high-impact research into the application of digital technologies to materials processing. It brings together key expertise in materials science, engineering, data analytics and cognitive computing to improve the understanding of complex materials processing and to develop user-friendly process control systems for the manufacturing industry.

I-Form will be actively engaged across a range of different materials-processing technologies, with a particular focus on additive manufacturing (3D printing).

“The manufacturing sector is the second-largest employer in Ireland and accounts for 36.5pc of GDP and €122.6bn in exports,” said Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys, TD. “It is crucial that Ireland continues to deliver impactful research outcomes in advanced manufacturing and I am particularly pleased to see such a strong regional focus, with 17 of the 31 companies based outside Dublin.”

Whether or not I-Form meets the IMA’s precise call for a discrete manufacturing centre of excellence, the investment in advanced manufacturing is a recognition that our entrepreneurs as well as FDI firms need infrastructure to evolve in a world that needs to think smarter and outside of the box.

Terms such as industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution might seem arresting but the reality is that the world of manufacturing is increasingly going to be won by those who can close the gap between innovation and logistics.

Ireland cannot compete with the scale or cost provided by industrial powerhouses such as China’s Shenzhen, but it can compete in terms of innovation, sheer engineering prowess and problem-solving.

For example, I-Form has already helped commercialise a new plasma-processing technology for the use of polymer powders in additive manufacturing. It has worked with Irish SME Exergyn to explore enhanced efficiency for its innovative clean-energy solution, which uses waste hot water to generate electricity. In conjunction with Croom Precision Medical, it has acted as a beta tester for Renishaw’s new advanced process monitoring and control technology for production scale metal additive printing. The centre has also worked on the Microsoft Ireland ‘HackAbility’ initiative on the development of a prototype mount for holding phones and tablets.

Winning in industry 4.0 won’t be about the number of workers, but the smarts it requires to devise, engineer and deliver by conquering complex problems and breaking them down through precise processes and methods.

Decades of engineering know-how combined with the experience of delivering global impact could serve Ireland well in this new industrial epoch. In this new phase, it will be about brains and not necessarily brawn.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years