Comms Business spoke to channel companies that sell to the manufacturing and construction sector to find out how the industry’s technology needs are shifting, and how the Channel can help.

In manufacturing, digital transformation has unlocked a myriad of opportunities over the past decade. IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), AI (artificial intelligence), VR/AR (virtual/augmented reality) and digital twin technologies are being deployed to assist manufacturers in a range of use cases, helping to solve some of the most pressing challenges that the sector faces, particularly since the pandemic.

Going green

A report carried out by The Engineer and Essentra Components, The State of Manufacturing 2023, found that, despite facing challenges, the sector is doing well to bounce back from the global health crisis.

Over three quarters of those surveyed said that business had returned or even exceeded pre-pandemic levels of production. These positive findings came in spite of a host of difficulties reported by those working in the sector, including supply chain shortages, the skills gap and pressures to decarbonise.

Encouragingly, 90 per cent of firms surveyed said they had an active technology investment plan, and 61 per cent viewed the drive for sustainability as an opportunity rather than a threat.

“The growing focus on sustainability is driving the development of new technologies that reduce waste and energy consumption in manufacturing,” said William Graham-Park, manufacturing vertical account manager at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise.

He added, “Additive manufacturing and other advanced manufacturing techniques, for example, can reduce material waste, while IIoT and advanced analytics can help identify areas where energy consumption can be reduced.”

Andy Needham, director of client sales EMEA at 8x8, said that manufacturers are aware of the challenges facing them regarding “green manufacturing”. That calls for meeting carbon targets, making transportation more efficient and ensuring employees are minimising carbon footprints.

“Additionally, when doing their audits for this, companies are starting to see that they have been running multiple technologies just running away in the background, using up energy. There’s a more efficient way now. And there’s a strong consideration for this because very often saving energy means saving money,” Needham commented.

Indeed, the energy crisis has been a serious concern, with Alcatel-Lucent’s Graham-Park citing it as a cause for financial headaches with some customers reporting 300 per cent increases on their energy bills.

“Thankfully, we are seeing some normalisation of prices now, as coordinate efforts from industrialised countries to re-source energy seemed to have taken effect,” he pointed out.

Nevertheless, the economic pressures faced by the sector – and the UK more broadly – in recent years has undoubtedly highlighted the importance for manufacturing and construction firms to cut costs wherever they can afford to do so.

Recent research from industrial simulation software provider Visual Components found that almost seven in ten (69 per cent) of manufacturing decision makers agreed that their sustainability strategy had been restricted due to cost pressures.

This figure indicates a serious need that Channel partners can help to fulfil, guiding the sector toward technologies that can help to alleviate some of these pressures and find technologies that work for them and their sustainability goals while also saving money long-term.

Tech talk

AI is one key technology area for the sector where cost savings could prove a big advantage. Rachel Akers, construction vertical account manager at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise explained that AI is being used in construction to analyse data, predict outcomes, and automate tasks.

“It is particularly useful for identifying and mitigating risks, improving safety, and reducing costs,” Akers said. IoT is also a key area of focus here, she explained, with similar advantages in cost savings, productivity and safety, a vital consideration in the construction environment.

“IoT-enabled devices can monitor and control building systems, equipment, and materials, helping to prevent accidents and minimise downtime,” Akers commented.

Cherie Howlett, CMO, Jola, said that mobile opportunities are “plentiful” in manufacturing as companies look to cut construction costs and improve safety and waste management.

“All construction sites need temporary telephony and Wi-Fi for site offices. At Jola, we also see high demand for 4G, 5G, M2M or IoT,” Howlett told Comms Business.

She added, “Jola partners operating in construction are providing mobile data solutions for tracking and monitoring equipment and for security solutions such as IP CCTV cameras and alarm systems to help construction sites improve security and reduce costs.”

Howlett offered up several areas in which technology needs are evolving within the construction sector thanks to the opportunities offered by digital transformation. Tool handling and equipment monitoring are particular areas of focus where Channel companies like Jola can help to provide solutions, she pointed out.

“On a construction site, an array of tools are used by trained operatives to complete jobs at each stage of the project. Cranes, for example, need to be fitted with data loggers to record key operational parameters so lifting operations can be reviewed and monitored,” Howlett said.

“Asset-tracking devices can now be glued to almost any construction tool. Bluetooth technology combined with an app on a smartphone allows for a near-real-time tracking of location. It also records where the device was last seen should it go missing.”

Elsewhere, Alcatel-Lucent’s Rachel Akers pointed to drones and robotics as technologies increasing in popularity for applications such as site surveying and automating tasks such as bricklaying to reduce manual labour and improve efficiency.

Use of VR and AR can also help the sector to reduce error in the real-world by providing a simulated, virtual environment for team workers to carry out design and planning, she added.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) has become an essential tool for the sector too, Akers said – a technology that allows teams to create a detailed model of a building or structure.

“BIM can help to identify potential issues before construction begins, saving time and reducing the risk of errors,” she commented.

Secure sites

Channel partners can help with cybersecurity concerns too – not to be taken lightly in the manufacturing sector, with reports of attacks on operational technology (OT) on the rise within industry.

A 2022 report from Make UK in partnership with Blackberry found that almost half of Britain’s manufacturers had been a victim of cybercrime over the previous year, and over a quarter of respondents reported financial losses because of an attack. 95 per cent said that cybersecurity measures are necessary for their company, while two thirds said its importance had increased over the last 12 months.

These figures are unsurprising when you consider the shift to digitalisation in the industry which, whilst opening doors of opportunity for manufacturers in all the ways described, is also opening doors for cybercriminals to take advantage of new technologies.

This is why it is vital for channel partners to help ensure these technologies can be properly secured so that digital transformation doesn’t end up posing a greater risk to businesses in the sector.

“With the increasing use of connected devices in manufacturing, cybersecurity has become a critical area of focus,” said Alcatel-Lucent’s William Graham-Park. “This includes technologies such as secure network architecture, data encryption, and access control systems.”

In addition to securing the technology itself and tracking assets, Jola’s Cherie Howlett said that investing in CCTV is a must for sites however long they are operational. “CCTV cameras as well as intrusion alarm systems are often used to monitor sites remotely,” she added.

Adapting to change

Whilst the sector hasn’t seen the same huge shift to hybrid and remote working that many other industries have since the pandemic, there has still been an increased need for some of the technologies that support new working patterns.

“The biggest evolution has probably been the onset of MS Teams which has driven more change than many of the other tools, but it’s not necessarily been the same as we see in other sectors because a lot of manufacturing and construction isn’t as hybrid as other sector,” Needham said.

“According to McKinsey, the hybrid model is more limited for manufacturers with around one-fifth of roles able to effectively work remotely. Speaking with manufacturers their offices are almost full, there’s not many of them doing hybrid in the same way, or as enthusiastically, as other organisations, but there is still a need for products like Teams and 8x8’s offering.

“This then has a knock-on effect around other systems because if you aren’t pushing hard into hybrid, then you might not see as urgent a need to update a PBX.”

He added that there’s also a recognised need to be able to deal with customers across large, pan-European regions and that can be helped by AI, translation tools and the cloud.

“Currently, there’s still a slow move to merging what you could call the old world of how things have been done and the new world of cloud computing and communications,” Needham said.

He added, “An area we are seeing the modernisation move is with companies that have made a substantial investment in DECT infrastructure and phones as part of their overall communications capabilities. They may be working well, but in some cases will be ageing and it’s time to modernise. The challenge there is seeing if DECT systems can be integrated into a new cloud communications platform. The short answer is yes.”

Change won’t happen overnight though, he explained – in manufacturing, he highlighted a ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ mentality whereby some manufacturers will be reluctant to ‘tinker with’ existing, legacy equipment.

8x8’s vice president of sales, Russell Tilsed, agreed that many manufacturers are sweating their assets, which he believes is slowing down change within the sector to an extent.

“Manufacturing and construction have, in some ways, been late coming to see the potential of cloud computing and communications as part of their digital transformation, but what you are seeing at the moment is an incredible effort to wring out every last bit of performance and work from assets that other sectors would have already changed or upgraded,” Tilsed said.

“That’s not to say CIOs are unaware of the potential out there, far from it. They are starting to recognise that they are losing sales and efficiencies due to digital shortfalls, so they’re starting to see where AI tools can also help with that. They are moving away from the older tech.”

Supporting the sector

The skills challenge continues to affect the manufacturing and construction sector, with the emergence of the ‘great resignation’ and recruitment struggles.

“One area where tech is making a considerable difference at the moment is with knowledge base technology, it’s playing a growing role in staffing and training issues,” said 8x8’s Andy Needham, adding that there’s a huge need for regularly updated knowledge base assets, training, HR and related materials.

“It’s not just about the content though, it needs to be in a format and channel that employees are comfortable with and that’s seeing the introduction of AI and chatbots to ensure constant availability of information in a style that suits.

“This is freeing up the teams in the likes of HR, training and related departments to concentrate on bigger issues instead of the constantly repetitive tasks.”

Meanwhile, Jola’s Cherie Howlett said that one of the biggest challenges construction companies face is managing their IT requirements in multiple sites on short-term contracts.

“Channel partners can help by offering short-term contracts and devices on a DaaS model with no upfront costs,” Howlett explained. “SIMs can be carefully monitored and pooled data allows usage to be shared. Companies like Jola are helping partners operating in vertical markets, such as construction and manufacturing, to understand the needs of their end-users and provide case studies of similar solutions used with excellent pricing to help win the deals.”

William Graham-Park at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise said that channel partners can support the sector in navigating challenges by “by aligning with other eco-system partners and vendors to complement their respective portfolios, in order to create richer and more comprehensive experiences for their clients.”

He gave the example of the energy crisis, explaining that by working with vendors and channel partners, utilising solutions such as CPaaS, channel businesses can work to integrate separate solutions together so that it is easier for manufacturing companies to monitor energy usage and start to automate processes, create alerts and provide analytics.

Construction vertical account manager Rachel Akers agreed collaboration is key – there are many parties involved in the chain of construction projects, she told Comms Business, requiring collaboration with diverse partners.

“Looking at the layers involved in bringing for example, a smart building to life – as a vendor, to be able to offer a comprehensive portfolio of technologies through our own offerings but also that of our strategic partners … helps build a picture of the full operating scenario. IoT integration, sustainability, everything mentioned in our earlier discussion can be managed by AI integrated through CPaaS operated on a network.”

8x8’s Russell Tilsed concluded that product knowledge paired with sector and local expertise is key.

He said, “There’s a few areas for the Channel to provide support. Firstly, it’s about knowing the products that are out there and knowing them well. It’s about understanding the custom technologies manufacturing and construction companies are using and knowing what will work well with it, instead of always pushing a blanket solution.

“They can also ensure they have the local relationships that matter and know when they should step in to add extra value, for example as a service rep and being there for the triage issues.”

This market report appeared in our April 2023 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.