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In conversation with Toby Bridges, Executive Chair, The NBT Group and Business Growth Board member at the North East LEP, about the importance of digital adoption in driving operational efficiency

How has the pace of digital adoption in the manufacturing sector impacted the work you do?

I chair The NBT Group, a supply chain management company that works closely with manufacturing businesses across the region and beyond. We’ve been working with our clients on automation for at least the last five years.

We’ve created and built a range of new technology that helps businesses become more operationally efficient, which in turn makes them more cost effective.

We’re aiming to move our clients, and suppliers, away from traditionally manual tasks, so they can focus on creating better jobs, which fits with the North East Strategic Economic Plan.

We enable our customers to do more with less, so they can take that saving and reinvest it into growing their business.

Why is investing in new digital tools and technology so important for the North East’s manufacturing sector?

For me, the goal is to drive operational efficiency. We need to position the North East as the most efficient location in the country to do business. That’s part of the reason why businesses continue to invest here.

Productivity is so important to the health of our economy. There are lots of places in the world where wages are cheaper, but they’re not as efficient and productive as the workforce in the North East. That has to continue, and automation will help us achieve that.

We need to encourage more companies to think about how they become 21st century, industry 4.0 businesses; otherwise they risk being left behind. That’s why the North East LEP has launched the Made Smarter Adoption North East programme, which aims to help manufacturing SMEs in the region adopt new digital technology, innovation and skills; helping drive growth in UK manufacturing.

Will the automation of manufacturing lead to job losses in the sector?

Whilst we will lose some jobs as manual tasks are replaced by technology, we will create far more ‘better’ jobs. It’s not easy to move from a traditional working model to a new, leaner way of doing things. To do that, businesses need to bring in new skills and talent.

The most important thing for the North East is to be ahead of the change that’s coming. We need to make sure we have the talent and expertise in the region to support businesses on this journey.

Understandably, many people focus on the importance of digital skills, but I think we need to invest in creative subjects too, like art and design. We need people that think outside the box. We can teach people how to code, but we shouldn’t underplay the power of the arts in helping manage change and encouraging new thinking.

What does the future hold for manufacturing? What will the sector look like in five or ten years time because of the move to advanced manufacturing?

I think basic manual tasks will become automated, but because of that, we’ll create a new skilled workforce to manage those systems.

It’s important to remember there are cultural challenges around automation too. It’s a difficult conversation to have sometimes but we can’t bury our heads in the ground – it’s coming.

That’s why the region’s focus on retraining and reskilling is so important, that two-way conversation between the educational establishments and industry on what is needed over the next 10-20 years. We need to support businesses and employees to invest in life-long learning so we continue to be prepared for and adapt to the changes digital technology will bring about in all our lives.

We need to create a positive message around digitisation and the benefits it will bring to jobs and the economy.

Toby Bridges is Executive Chair at The NBT Group and a Business Growth Board member at the North East LEP.

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New government-backed business support programme aims to increase digital technology adoption in North East manufacturing sector

A new business support programme aimed at helping manufacturing SMEs in the North East increase digital technology adoption, innovation and skills has launched in the region.

Made Smarter Adoption North East connects manufacturing businesses to digital tools that can transform the way they work. The programme, which is backed by government, aims to drive growth in UK manufacturing by improving the development and adoption of emerging technologies across the sector.

Colin Bell, Business Growth Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “The coronavirus pandemic saw an unprecedented pace of digital adoption across many areas of industry, which ultimately helped many businesses survive.

“Made Smarter Adoption North East is about supporting businesses in our manufacturing sector to embrace new technologies that help them become more efficient, more productive and more competitive. It connects companies with expert talent that can remove the barriers to digital adoption and ultimately make businesses more successful.

“The adoption of new digital solutions within manufacturing is completely transforming the sector and if businesses don’t adapt they risk being left behind. Made Smarter Adoption North East is the opportunity for manufacturing businesses in our region to access the help and support they need to embrace industry 4.0 and help lead economic growth in the North East.”

Made Smarter Adoption North East provides SMEs with fully-funded advice from specialist technology experts on the adoption of new digital technologies, innovations and skills. The three-stage process includes an initial one-to-one digital health check, helping businesses identify where improvements can be made. More intensive workshops look at the solutions available and how the technology works in practice. The final stage sees businesses work with an industrial digital technologies (IDT) specialist to move towards the implementation phase. Participating businesses will also be given support in identifying possible grant funding to help with the purchase of new technology and equipment.

Additional funding is provided through the programme for student and graduate placements so businesses can create digital interns to help integrate the new technology into the business. Employees are also invited to take part in digital upskilling and leadership development through Made Smarter Adoption North East’s leadership training programme, which is delivered by North East universities.

The wider Made Smarter programme was created following an industry-led review of how UK manufacturing industries can prosper through digital tools and innovation. This independent review was commissioned by UK Government and led by Professor Juergen Maier CBE, Co-Chair of Made Smarter UK.

Juergen Maier CBE said: “Made Smarter will be helping local manufacturing businesses to create new opportunities and innovate in the process.

“It’s a hugely exciting time and I believe this is truly a once in a generational opportunity to boost productivity and create the high value, highly paid jobs of the future.”

Made Smarter Adoption North East is open to all manufacturing SMEs in the North East LEP and Tees Valley Combined Authority areas.

Businesses in the North East LEP area (Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland) can sign up to take part in Made Smarter Adoption North East by visiting www.northeastgrowthhub.co.uk.

Businesses in the Tees Valley Combined Authority area (Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar and Cleveland) can sign up to take part in Made Smarter Adoption North East by visiting www.teesvalleybusiness.com/MadeSmarter.