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Asia has long led the global manufacturing race. Populous nations like China have relied on an abundance of cheap labor to drive growth in their manufacturing sector. However, with the rise of the industrial internet of things (IIoT) an opportunity has arisen for Europe’s factories to gain a competitive advantage over their Asian cousins. It is an opportunity they have not yet taken.

By flooding our plants and factories with sensors and connectivity, we have brought about a new era of industrial efficiency and productivity. Where once the height of machinery was purpose built equipment, designed to do one thing well and quickly, things have now changed.

A multi-axis robot arm can now easily be programmed to perform a variety of tasks, for example, combined with a greater understanding of the whole production line we are finding new avenues for improvement. This trend reduces the dependence on slower, error-prone human labor, saving the human mind for what it does best; innovate and problem-solve.

In Asia they are welcoming these developments with open arms. Rather than relying on the human capital that has served them so well for so long, Asian industrial centers are leading the world into the next evolution of manufacturing.

“We are seeing a huge take-up of advanced factory automation in the Far East, particularly in China and Taiwan. They are realizing the efficiency benefits that can be gained by the use of general purpose robot arm technology on a production line,” says noted IBM internet of things engineer Andy Stanford-Clark.

The Chinese government, who love a 10 year plan, put into motion the Made in China 2025 initiative to upgrade the Chinese manufacturing sector. The core idea of this strategy, drafted by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) in collaboration with the China Academy of Engineering, is ‘manufacturing intelligence’ for greater efficiency and quality.

“The goal is to comprehensively upgrade Chinese industry, making it more efficient and integrated so that it can occupy the highest parts of global production chains. The plan identifies the goal of raising domestic content of core components and materials to 40% by 2020 and 70% by 2025,” explains Scott Kennedy, Deputy Director, Freeman Chair in China Studies, and Director, Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy.

This centralized approach by the Chinese authority seems already to be bearing fruit and has given the Chinese manufacturing sector the upper hand against its European competitors. However, Europe’s own initiatives, such the German led Industrie 4.0 (i4.0) or the UK Industrial Strategy, do demonstrate the priority being given to upgrading European industry in a similar way.

“Manufacturing is undoubtedly a key engine for growth across Europe, with more than two thirds of all EU exports coming from the sector. However, in some critical aspects of digital innovation, Europe is lagging behind its Asian competitors,” says Daniel Keely, manufacturing director, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, at Cisco’s manufacturing practice digital transformation group.

There are fundamental differences between the structures of European and Asian industry, and therefore industrial strategy. The European approach, for example, focuses on using the IIoT to connect small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) more efficiently in global production and innovation networks. The hope is that they might not only increase efficiency in mass production but just as easily and efficiently customize products.

In China the approach is far broader, largely because the levels efficiency and quality of Chinese producers are much more uneven than in The West. The Chinese government realize that significant obstacles must be overcome in a short amount of time if China is to avoid losing out to both newly emerging low-cost producers and the resurgent advanced industrialized economies.

It is perhaps these differences that have seen Asia, and specifically China, race ahead of Europe in the early years of the IIoT revolution in manufacturing. Like the hare China’s strategy is fact acting and makes a big statement of intent to the world economy; but maybe, like the tortoise, Europe’s SME led – innovation driven approach will show its qualities as benefits filter organically across the continent.

We should not expect China to sleep however; no doubt discussion on the next evolution of Chinese manufacturing is well underway. If Europe is to seize the opportunities that the IIoT brings, and take a more commanding place in global manufacturing picture, it will need pick up the pace.

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