Back to the Future with a Bantam

Professor Rab Scott, Head of Digital at the AMRC, uses the example of an old Colchester Bantam lathe to show how easily – and cheaply – companies can digitally enable these workhorses of the past to upgrade their legacy manufacturing processes.

A 1956 Colchester Bantam Lathe may not be the most likely piece of kit to take to one of the world’s most prestigious Machine Tool exhibitions. But that’s what the young engineers at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) decided to ship down to the MACH show at Birmingham last month.

As this workhorse of the Second Industrial Revolution was being lifted into place the look on the faces of the surrounding exhibitors was one of utter bewilderment – what was this long extinct dinosaur doing at a tradeshow where most stands were sporting state-of-the-art equipment?

By the end of the week they knew. The Colchester was the star of the show.

What was it doing there? It was showing how even the oldest, grubbiest (it deliberately hadn’t been spruced up for the show) piece of kit can be brought into the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This once faithful servant of UK manufacturing had been retro-fitted with sensors to monitor vibration, temperature and current, with the data captured by the sensors displayed on an easy-to-read dash-board for the operator to see in real time. And the cost? A whopping £250.

And that was the message: for a relatively small amount anyone can pay to join the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Once you have joined, however, there is a problem – the problem of skills and support.

The support challenge is – who will do the integration of low cost sensors into a dashboarding system, and then how does this interface with the IT systems? At the moment these integrators are few and far between – so is this an opportunity for the market?

The skills challenge is broader. Contrary to what Facebook and Cambridge Analytica might suggest, data has no value. Data is only valuable when it is converted into knowledge, and that knowledge is easily exploited by the manufacturer. There’s no use giving me the knowledge of a quantum computer – I wouldn’t know what to do with it! Likewise, if I am on a beach at Largs (heaven knows why), there is no point in giving me knowledge about a machine in Cumbernauld. And this is the message. Data on its own will not transform your business. You also need skilled people to unlock, interpret and analyse the knowledge hidden inside that data, and then communicate it in the right form, to the right people at the right time.

When talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution I often cite this quote:

“Imagine every piece of equipment monitoring its own operation, including uptime, downtime, dwell-time, energy usage, malfunction and repair-time. Usage can then be reported with an Internet connection. Technologies exist right now that can do that in order to help end-users manage their assets.”

This was from an article by Jim Pinto in 2003 in Automation World – so what has changed?

Well, we can still do all of the above, but more cheaply, more quickly and with greater insights than before. And now, thanks to mobile digital technologies, we really can get these insights into the right hands in the right place at the right time. It is the connection of digital and manufacturing that is the spark igniting the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Colchester brought in the crowds. Many were nostalgic for a glimpse of the past. But when they left the AMRC stand, they left with a clear view of what the future holds. The challenge now is how to help every manufacturer make that connection, adopt the technology, grow the skills, and make the future their own.