In conversation with Toby Bridges, Executive Chair, The NBT Group and Business Growth Board member at the North East LEP, about the importance of digital adoption in driving operational efficiency


How has the pace of digital adoption in the manufacturing sector impacted the work you do?

I chair The NBT Group, a supply chain management company that works closely with manufacturing businesses across the region and beyond. We’ve been working with our clients on automation for at least the last five years.

We’ve created and built a range of new technology that helps businesses become more operationally efficient, which in turn makes them more cost effective.

We’re aiming to move our clients, and suppliers, away from traditionally manual tasks, so they can focus on creating better jobs, which fits with the North East Strategic Economic Plan.

We enable our customers to do more with less, so they can take that saving and reinvest it into growing their business.

Why is investing in new digital tools and technology so important for the North East’s manufacturing sector?

For me, the goal is to drive operational efficiency. We need to position the North East as the most efficient location in the country to do business. That’s part of the reason why businesses continue to invest here.

Productivity is so important to the health of our economy. There are lots of places in the world where wages are cheaper, but they’re not as efficient and productive as the workforce in the North East. That has to continue, and automation will help us achieve that.

We need to encourage more companies to think about how they become 21st century, industry 4.0 businesses; otherwise they risk being left behind. That’s why the North East LEP has launched the Made Smarter Adoption North East programme, which aims to help manufacturing SMEs in the region adopt new digital technology, innovation and skills; helping drive growth in UK manufacturing.

Will the automation of manufacturing lead to job losses in the sector?

Whilst we will lose some jobs as manual tasks are replaced by technology, we will create far more ‘better’ jobs. It’s not easy to move from a traditional working model to a new, leaner way of doing things. To do that, businesses need to bring in new skills and talent.

The most important thing for the North East is to be ahead of the change that’s coming. We need to make sure we have the talent and expertise in the region to support businesses on this journey.

Understandably, many people focus on the importance of digital skills, but I think we need to invest in creative subjects too, like art and design. We need people that think outside the box. We can teach people how to code, but we shouldn’t underplay the power of the arts in helping manage change and encouraging new thinking.

What does the future hold for manufacturing? What will the sector look like in five or ten years time because of the move to advanced manufacturing?

I think basic manual tasks will become automated, but because of that, we’ll create a new skilled workforce to manage those systems.

It’s important to remember there are cultural challenges around automation too. It’s a difficult conversation to have sometimes but we can’t bury our heads in the ground – it’s coming.

That’s why the region’s focus on retraining and reskilling is so important, that two-way conversation between the educational establishments and industry on what is needed over the next 10-20 years. We need to support businesses and employees to invest in life-long learning so we continue to be prepared for and adapt to the changes digital technology will bring about in all our lives.

We need to create a positive message around digitisation and the benefits it will bring to jobs and the economy.

Toby Bridges is Executive Chair at The NBT Group and a Business Growth Board member at the North East LEP.

The NBT Group is part of a collaborative research project with Northumbria University and Senseye to evaluate new and emerging ‘smart’ technologies, helping to digitalise and transform manufacturing supply chains (read more here). The award of over £250k is part of the £18 million of funding granted through the Digital Supply Chain competition, which forms part of UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) Made Smarter innovation challenge. The Digital Supply Chain competition supports the development of innovations designed to help manufacturing supply chains become more productive and sustainable.