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We don’t need no education

Engineering UK’s 2018 state of the industry report recommended that the UK needs to fill 124,000 core engineering roles a year to meet demand. The best way to fill this skills gap is to improve education. But are we doing the right things to mould the engineers of the future? Here, Jonathan Wilkins, director of industrial automation parts supplier EU Automation, discusses the role of education in closing the skills gap and how technology and software holds the answers.

Technology plays an important part in all our lives and our reliance on data is growing, particularly in industry. Businesses now require a workforce that can interpret the high volumes of data collected in industry and use it to improve productivity. The best way to secure a new generation of engineers in the workplace is to encourage more students to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at a higher level. The UK government is supporting businesses and education. In its Industrial Strategy in 2017, it proposed investing an additional £406 million in STEM subjects to provide better education and more paths into engineering, including higher education and apprenticeships.

Technology in school

Businesses and associations also fund schools and provide them with technology to make lessons informative and interesting. For example, in 2016, the BBC gave micro:bits, pocket-sized coding computers, to a million schoolchildren in the UK. With these devices, students learnt to code using simple online software. After a year, the BBC found that around nine in ten students thought the device could help them code, no matter their ability. Learning coding and other technical skills will help pupils understand more about engineering and encourage them to study it at a higher level. However, it is unlikely that the technology children use in the classroom will be used when they enter the industry. For example, students are learning how to code using current software, but this technology will inevitably be replaced in the future. As developers release more advanced technology regularly, it becomes obsolete faster. It may be difficult for the education system to keep up to date with the rapid developments of industry. If education falters and falls further behind industrial developments, students will find that they are unfamiliar with the technology in a facility once they get a job.

Retrofit

Manufacturers do not invest in every relevant new technology, because they may find their current equipment works efficiently for their application and only replace it after a breakdown. At this point, manufacturers can use older, obsolete equipment to efficiently complete production. To improve productivity, many manufacturers are investing in internet connected devices to realise Industry 4.0. There is a common misconception that manufacturers must purchase newer equipment to do this, but older technology can also be made Industry 4.0 ready. Companies such as ABB, B&R, Bosch Rexroth and Red Lion have developed equipment that can be retrofitted to older machines to access data and connect the machine to the cloud. We are regularly asked for these kinds of devices by customers, alongside the obsolete parts that are the mainstay of our work. So, because obsolete technology plays such a large part in Industry 4.0 and general maintenance, repair and operations work, students could come across the technology they later use in their professional lives. Businesses should work with schools to make sure students are learning the right skills, regardless of the technology they use. To secure the UK manufacturing sector, businesses, schools and the government must invest in education that inspires students and equips them with the necessary skills to work with key technologies. It may be difficult for the school curriculum to adapt to the rapid adoption of new equipment. However, it is important for students to handle as much technology as possible because what they learn during their education may still be applied to industry in the future. www.euautomation.co