The 4th Industrial Revolution – are we missing a trick?

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Image credit: Google & Genesis Nanotechnology Inc

I love that recent quote from Prince Phillip – “Everything not invented by God, was invented by an engineer.”

It fills me with excitement as we enter a period where we are certainly going to need our inventive skills! I’m referring to:

  • Taking the first steps into the fourth industrial revolution;
  • Mapping out an industrial strategy for the UK;
  • Looking to rebalance the economy; and
  • Managing all the angles and permutations from the recent Brexit decision.

Particularly for the 4th Industrial Revolution, the U.K. stands at the forefront. There have been some inventive steps taken in closing the skills gap, inspiring the next generation through STEM subjects, developing the Internet of Things and unlocking the potential of Big Data, and whilst all of these have a crucial role to play in the next industrial revolution, I wonder if we’re missing a trick.

And that missing trick is materials.

Not only is the topic of materials one of our strongest areas of invention in the UK (just look at graphene and the development in 2D materials), but materials was the bedrock upon which the first industrial revolution (iron), the second industrial revolution (steel) and the third industrial revolutions (rare earth metals) were built.

We’re not missing the trick completely. The topic of materials is on the radar as evidenced in the Great 8 report  and the establishment of the National Graphene Institute, the Graphene Engineering & Innovation Centre and the recently announced Royce Institute, but as we enter the fourth industrial revolution, I’m worried that we in the UK are not taking full advantage of the inventive powers we have in materials.

The fourth industrial revolution is all about connectivity, flexibility and personalisation. It’s a batch size of 1 at mass production prices. It’s about smart devices, smart sensors, smart products and smart factories enabled by Big Data.

If we are going to take a leading role in this new era, we are going to need to use our internationally recognised power of materials research & development and apply this power to:

  • bring to market solutions for the exponential growth in data storage;
  • use 2D materials in making devices, sensors and products smart; and
  • use 3D printing to unlock the dream of a batch size of 1 at mass production prices.

Where I feel we are missing the trick is that materials needs to move more to the centre of our radar, rather than, as I feel, a poor relation to the more exciting topics of skills gap, Big Data & Digitalisation.

The inventive steps we are taking in material research and development deserve to be taken advantage of – to create a vibrant and buoyant manufacturing sector providing solutions for data storage, manufacturing smart devices, sensors and products and running smart factories built on 3D printing for flexibility, customisation and personalisation.

Currently I feel the challenge we face is ensuring that we exploit this advantage and avoid the train passing us by.

So back to Prince Phillip’s quote. I think if we’re going to show that everything not invented by God, was invented by an engineer, then my hope is that the engineers in question are fully aware of and encouraged by both government and industry to use the incredible materials inventive powers we have in the UK. If this is achieved I feel excited we will continue to lead from the forefront and will enter the next stage of the 4th industrial revolution confidently.

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