BAE’s Paul McLaren says manufacturers both large and small need to take advantage of the opportunities offered by technological innovation

It is approaching 10 years since World Economic Forum executive chairman Klaus Schwab introduced the concept of a Fourth Industrial Revolution into public imagination.

In Schwab’s assessment this revolution would include the rise of technology such as artificial intelligence, the industrial internet of things, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles and robotics, changing the world in general - and manufacturing in particular - forever.

How gradual or sharp the Fourth Industrial Revolution is proving to be may be up for debate but for Paul McLaren, chair of Made Smarter North West’s Steering Group and Production Director for BAE Systems, it is clear that all manufacturers need to be alive to the opportunities presented by technological innovation.

He says this is the same for SMEs or multinational original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as BAE. The only difference is the scale.

"There's often that drive for growth,” says Paul, who is based at BAE Systems’ Air Sector site.

“What else can we do to best support our customers? How can we better align resources and create efficiencies to ultimately drive an improved end user solution or experience.”

In a world where the pace of technological change and the sheer number of new innovations can seem dizzying, Paul admits it is hard to choose one area which is more influential than any other.

“But the one that I tend to navigate back to personally is the ability to drive, process, understand and leverage data and in some of our SMEs that are down the tiers in the supply chain the benefit associated with doing that more effectively can be exponential,” he says.

"I think a huge focus moving forward, not just for manufacturing, will hinge on our ability to handle data and to process it effectively.”

Data analysis is not just something he thinks will be essential within individual businesses but among different operators within supply chains.

"If you think about a place like Cumbria, there are some big OEMs in Cumbria but all of those OEMs are highly reliant on what is a vast supply chain and the ability to better connect through each tier of those supply chains is something that digital techniques and technology can absolutely leverage.”

However, just as technology can bring benefits, failure to take full advantage of the innovations on offer presents a real risk for businesses who could lose their competitive advantage as a result.

"Whether it's becoming less efficient, which ultimately affects growth and affordability, whether it's resilience, the ability to withstand unplanned shocks, or whether it's even future proofing against skill shortages across the UK,” says Paul.

“The benefits are significant, the risks are equally significant.”

Paul says he believes adoption of technology can also play its part in attracting new people into a career in manufacturing and engineering.

"I think there's absolutely a growing shift in expectation from the younger generation in the context of environments that are built on more effective use of technology,” he says.

“There’s a recognition within the younger generation of a desire to pursue technologically advanced careers.”

However, the desire to work with and adopt technology also has to be accompanied by relevant training.

"I think it has heightened the industry's focus on the skills and capabilities that will be needed in the future,” says Paul.

“An employee historically might have been focused on electrical equipment or mechanical equipment or maybe both and it's shifted the focus to what needs to happen to get the best integration and the best support to those employees in support of what will be no doubt a more advanced task.”

The technological innovation and knowhow at BAE Systems are obvious, whether in terms of its submarine building programme in Barrow or at the new FalconWorks, based at Warton, near Preston, which is focused on advanced research and technology development in the air sector.

Its Factory of the Future, based at Warton, is bringing together a collaboration of technology and manufacturing companies and academic institutions as an experimental hub to explore the potential of data, robotics, connectivity and 3D printing technology in building military aircraft.

However, Paul says no matter how advanced automation may become there will always be a role for human ingenuity, as well as the core business principles of maintaining a clear line of sight of the vision for the future.

"You need a solid strategy in the context of the business model and what you aspire to in support of the outcomes for the customer, the business and the employees,” he says.

“If you don't you could be susceptible to what will always be a vast and broad opportunity set associated with technology. You've got to stay true to what's required and what's needed.”

In his role with Made Smarter, Paul is determined determined to help as many other companies as possible realise and benefit from the opportunities technology represents.

Launched as a pilot in the North West in 2019, the Made Smarter programme has engaged with 2,500 manufacturers and funded 334 technology projects, which are forecast to create 1,550 jobs, upskill 2,772 existing roles and increase North West GVA by £242m.

Its work includes a number of initiatives with Cumbrian manufacturers across the county.

The success of the project has persuaded the Government to expand the programme to cover all nine English regions in 2025/26 before working with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland from 2026 to 2027.

Although the full details of how Made Smarter will be delivered nationally are yet to be revealed, Paul says he hopes it will continue to follow a similar model to the pilot.

"We can expect the business model to remain focused on driving as much value as we can into the supply chain through digital technologies,” he says.

“When we think about it on a national scale the model doesn’t need to change. It’s about how we can focus and target the right areas of the UK, not just the North West, who will benefit from this type of investment.

“When we say investment it’s not just grants. We're focused on digital apprenticeships, we're focused on leadership training and capability in connecting to digital activities and technology, and we know there's real SME support that's benefiting these employees as well.”

To those beginning or considering a career in the fast changing environment of manufacturing, Paul says they need to come with "enthusiasm, positivity and a recognition that change is a good thing."I feel like the boundaries, if they ever were there, are shrinking and where you can go and what you can contribute to off the back of a career that starts in manufacturing is certainly growing.”