Can digital transformation help the UK’s economic recovery after lockdown?

  • 10 June 2020
  • Business, Technology
  • JT Janssen

The UK has a world-leading research base, with a wealth of exceptional science and engineering expertise housed in research and technology organisations across the country. We need to identify ways in which we can exploit this resource to support businesses to recover and thrive after months of lockdown. 

Things are different now; some markets have shrunk considerably whilst others have grown - benefiting from the lockdown (2019 would have been a great time to invest in a video conferencing platform). This means that businesses will have to evolve and adapt to survive – some will need to export their products to new markets, others will have to develop something new, building on their core capabilities and take advantage of new opportunities.

The science and engineering community will have to pull together to make sure that businesses can access our support, expertise and facilities. We need to make sure that we are working closely with industry to help them to speed up the process of getting their products to market, to help them innovate at pace.

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the UK’s National Metrology Institute – specialists in measurement science; we are owned by BEIS and deliver the National Measurement System – a programme of BEIS funding. So, how can we and others use our science and engineering expertise to support UK industry? 

We think a key enabler of our future success rides upon helping businesses to digitally transform and to do that effectively – that is something that we will also have to do ourselves.

Let’s get digital…

We were already aware of the importance of being connected and having digital infrastructure, but this has been made even more apparent during lockdown. Conferences are being delivered via zoom, customer meetings are taking place over skype, people who are usually based in offices, have been able to connect with each other and successfully work remotely, from home. 

COVID-19 is going to be a catalyst for digital transformation where we will see an even faster move to industry 4.0.  Discussions with the manufacturing sector suggest we can expect a change in attitude and behaviour towards research and development activity. Instead of research moving forward in incremental steps, manufacturers are expecting to go for major step changes – in other words, moving straight to the next generation of technology. We are seeing more companies looking at how they can automate processes and benefit from AI and Machine Learning to boost their productivity. 

How can we support this?

NPL aims to scale up its digital support for companies, making use of our expertise in gathering high quality trusted data. 

Digitising processes generates a lot of data, and companies must have confidence in this data and be able to use this information intelligently. For example, data gathered during the development of components could: 

  • help identify a part that had been heated to slightly too high a temperature, is now fragile and should not be used, taking it out of the supply chain before a problem can arise
  • identify variation in size of components, enabling parts to be put in place where they will be an exact match

We will be working directly with industry enabling the development of data quality standards and frameworks so they can have confidence in the data they are collecting and confidence in the decisions that they are making based upon it.

Virtual reality

The Coronavirus crisis has shown how difficult it can be to get products to market quickly, having tested and certified that they meet the required standards. For example, in recent weeks we have had companies, both large and small, coming to work with our engineers to verify that the personal protective equipment (PPE)[1] and ventilators[2] that they are developing meet required standards. 

NPL helps businesses test and validate the products they make to demonstrate they meet required standards, perform as expected, are safe and fit for purpose. This is key step in getting a product to market and giving confidence to your customer. 

How can we do this faster?

NPL are experts in physical testing but to make processes across all industrial and manufacturing sectors more agile in the recovery phase and beyond, we also need to develop the UK’s virtual testing capabilities, making use of digital technologies to get novel products to new markets faster

Instead of having to send people to test items in situ or send products to NPL, we will work to develop a combined digital and physical test programme. Virtual testing can take place at both the design and production stage, reducing potential errors earlier on in the process.  

To sum up

The research and innovation community need to do everything we can to support UK businesses - offering them access to our facilities, resource and expertise to get them back into a competitive position. 

We need to be ready to support digital transformation of businesses. We will be developing the digital metrology, virtual testing and validation to reduce the time it takes to get products to market and offer the data quality infrastructure to help businesses make good decisions, based on good data.

NPL are asking businesses to #TellNPL what their challenges are, so that we can support industry in returning to operations post COVID -19 lockdown. 

Dr JT Janssen is Chief Scientist at the National Physical Laboratory, responsible for the quality of science and engineering research undertaken at the laboratory as well as strategic engagement with external scientific research institutions, universities and government. He heads the National Graphene Metrology Centre (NGMC), whose role it is to develop metrology and standardisation for the nascent graphene industry. JT is also a Scientific Co-Director of the Quantum Metrology Institute (QMI), which covers all of NPL's leading-edge quantum science and metrology research and provides the expertise and facilities needed for academia and industry to test, validate and ultimately commercialise new quantum research and technologies.