2020 is a year that most people would prefer to consign to history. The long-term economic fallout from the pandemic is uncertain, but one thing is clear: while the coronavirus forced many industries to adopt remote, flexible working and social distancing at scale – with 85-90 percent of staff in many organisations working from home – the changes themselves were not new.

The ubiquitous ‘new normal’ of 2020 was far from the word that nearly every journalist reached for this year, ‘unprecedented’. It was really a dramatic acceleration of long-observable trends towards greater mobility, flexibility, and collaboration via cloud platforms. Organisations’ perimeters widened, and work became more of a shared activity around a set of ideals than a destination.

As a result, organisations that were more advanced in accommodating these demands experienced less of a shock to the system – at least internally. The lesson has been that the smart, adaptable, flexible, distributed, data-fuelled business is better placed for the future than the monolithic one that focuses on legacy and market gravity. But for any business that relies on people gathering in numbers in physical locations, or travelling together from A to B, the shock has still been extreme.

One of the unknowns for 2021 and beyond is the extent to which this may change life in our cities: now that many organisations have found that they can function without the need for large, expensive premises, it’s inevitable that many will downsize their use of them to slash costs. Many workplaces may begin to fulfil more of a social function than an essential, operational utility, and this may have knock-on effects on the businesses that serve workers in large urban centres.

But smart cities are still on innovators’ and policymakers’ agenda, using sensors, the IoT, data analytics, automation, and more, to gather data about how we use public spaces and networks in order to model better, greener, more efficient and sustainable ones. Sensors themselves will become smaller, smarter, and less energy intensive, and will be deployed closer to the point of need, at the ever-expanding edge. AI-enabled sensors will be a technology to watch next year.

In May 2020, a Westminster eForum event (now virtual) looked at the challenge of smart cities in the COVID-19 age. London is one city with in-depth programmes in place to explore how mobility, smart buildings, energy efficiency, citizen engagement, data management, and smart street furniture can better serve the community, all fuelled by a strong commitment to open data.

Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer in the Mayor of London’s Office, told delegates how London plans to offer citizens 48-hour air quality data in partnership with the Turing Institute, hopefully beginning in 2021. Expect more initiatives like this next year.

Nicola Yates, CEO of the UK’s Connected Places Catapult, observed that the pandemic offers the world a chance to make things better in difficult circumstances. “Coronavirus has created an inflection point in the connected places market; a significant opportunity for some innovative businesses,” she said.

“Historically, one of the key barriers to digital has been the sharing of data. In addition, personal data rules, the interoperability of systems, and different approaches to ethical considerations.

“The pandemic has shown that, if there is a sufficiently compelling need to share data, then it is possible.”

2020 certainly changed the way some people look at new technologies. For years, the popular media has tended to see robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, and other Industry 4.0 innovations as threats to human society, jobs, and well-being.

Yet if essential processes can be safely automated, and if robots of different kinds can plough fields, fertilise and irrigate crops, pick fruit, run lights-out factories, maintain essential infrastructure, staff warehouses, distribute medicines, deliver goods, and monitor public spaces when humans cannot, then these technologies can surely play a major role in sustaining our society.

And if artificial intelligence can speed the development of new drugs and vaccines, and carry out essential research into protein folding, then so much the better. News that Google’s DeepMind has done the latter at the end of 2020 is welcome.

In the midst of the pandemic, the car market is one of many that has been changing fast. As the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) expands, and robotics, digital twins, augmented reality, additive manufacturing, and other Industry 4.0 innovations gain ground, smart factories will continue to be on the rise, especially in the auto sector.

For example, BMW has been collaborating with NVIDIA on automating its production lines via robotics and AI, allowing it to produce highly customised cars to order within its standard factory workflows.

According to a 2020 Capgemini report, automakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Renault plan to convert 44 percent of their factories into smart facilities over the next five years, with a view to driving productivity gains, improving efficiency, reducing stock, making quicker decisions within market dynamics, responding faster to them, minimising their energy usage, and achieving overall cost savings via deeper business insights. In the COVID-19 age, these are the types of gains that all businesses will look for.

The services giant spoke to 100 decision-makers in automotive companies worldwide and found that 98 percent of them have a smart factory initiative of some kind underway, with nearly half (48 percent) saying that they are making good progress against their plans.

Overall, smart factories could be worth $167 billion to the auto industry alone – which increasingly sees itself as being in the technology, rather than the transport, business. Not least because companies like Uber, Alphabet, and Apple now see a future in transport.

But the problem is that only a small percentage of automakers are currently achieving their targets for process improvement: roughly 15 percent. This echoes Capgemini’s larger study – Smart Factories at Scale (November 2019) – which found that only 14 percent of 1,000 manufacturers of every type describe their smart initiatives as successful.

The challenge is scaling their ambitions, mixed with complexity, legacy technologies, security concerns, lack of relevant workforce skills, internal cultural and management resistance, and poor integration between operational technology and IT departments.

Trend Micro stressed the dangers of connected systems within smart factories during the summer, in a report that set out how legacy code could be deployed by hackers to compromise robots and other automated industrial machinery. These technologies can’t simply be ripped out and replaced, warned the company.

Yet the pandemic has forced many companies to rip out and replace their strategies in a world in which negative scenario planning and ‘expect the unexpected’ now look like good business sense rather than pessimism.

But where does the UK stand in all this? With Brexit in the offing, that is difficult to say, but opportunities are there if the country embraces new technologies rather than looks to the past.

An upbeat report this month from the Midlands Manufacturing Resilience Commission claimed that ‘digital industrialisation’ could be worth as much as £455 billion to Britain’s manufacturers over the next decade.

The sector could grow by up to three per cent a year and create 175,000 new jobs, but only if it embraces digital technologies, said the report. It added, “The UK lags behind other European countries in terms of productivity because our industries are not automating fast enough.

“It takes a UK worker 40 hours to produce the same output a German counterpart would produce in three-quarters of that time, partly because there are four times more robots in a German production line.”

Drones have been another success story of the new industrial age – and are likely to be a boom area in 2021, especially since the US granted retail and Web services behemoth Amazon permission for limited Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) testing for drone deliveries. However, the air traffic management aspects of thousands – perhaps millions – of daily UAV flights will be significant.

In the UK, drones and new aviation systems are a strategic priority under the new Industrial Strategy, as a component of robotics, AI, and green energy initiatives. In the autumn, projects that use sensor-packed drones and sustainable electric aviation were among the first to receive a share of £33.5 million in government funding – the first tranche of the £125 million Future Flight Challenge.

Of the first 20 projects to receive a total of £7.35 million from the government, nine are focused on battling the coronavirus, including the development of unmanned drones to deliver medication.

Once again, it’s clear that robotics, AI, and other new technologies are helping humans to face the future, not threatening the fabric of our fragile society.


Thanks for reading, from everyone at Transform Industry – we wish you a happy new year and a jolly festive break.


Be part of a discussion and connect with like-minded leaders and professionals in your sector at our interactive events, just sign up here to be part of our community.