Improved rural connectivity could unlock £8.8bn for British manufacturers

By Bethan Grylls

- Last updated on GMT

For almost two years, British Sugar has benefitted from the UK’s first multi-site 4G (and 5G ready) private network
For almost two years, British Sugar has benefitted from the UK’s first multi-site 4G (and 5G ready) private network

Related tags Innovation Investment Technology & Automation Artificial intelligence

Enhanced rural connectivity has the potential to provide rural manufacturers with a 7%+ turnover boost, adding an extra £8.8bn to the UK economy, new research suggests.

With more than half of manufacturing jobs located in rural areas, better connectivity could have serious financial benefits to the sector, alongside helping to increase employment by 6.8%

The study comes from Cebr on behalf of Virgin Media O2 as UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt confirms a £4.5bn investment into British Manufacturing within the Autumn Budget​.

Recent output data shows the industry has been struggling due to the UK’s persistent productivity challenge, with many manufacturers saying they expect economic conditions in the UK to deteriorate. 

Technology has the power to help address some of the challenges faced by the UK manufacturing sector. ‘Wearables’, for example, could improve safety and effectiveness, whilst greater automation could lower human error and machine failure. However, these advanced tools need good connectivity – something which has not previously been available in rural areas.  

Virgin Media O2’s ‘The Great Rural Revival Report’, which is based on economic modelling from Cebr, finds improved rural connectivity could boost the UK economy by £65.1bn, with manufacturing set to benefit the most drastically.

Around one in six rural manufacturing business decision makers surveyed as part of the report said they would make greater use of technologies such as remote stock checking, inventory management and fleet management technology.

Emphasising the advantages of improved connectivity, Dr Nandini Chakrovorti, associate director of digital engineering at The Manufacturing Technology Centre, said: “In a world of reduced resources, manufacturers are under increasing pressure to optimise their processes to extract the maximum value at all times whilst minimising their impact on the environment.

“Technologies such as AI, robotics and digital twins all significantly contribute to this endeavour. But connectivity is key to maximising their impact in real-time, so that manufacturers can increase their productivity and global competitiveness in a sustainable way.”

British Sugar reaps benefits of improved connectivity

British Sugar has been working with Virgin Media O2 for last few years and has benefitted from the UK’s first multi-site 4G (and 5G ready) private network, spanning Norfolk, Suffolk and Nottinghamshire – a total operational area of 2.17km2​. 

This has supported the installation of multiple IoT devices and the development of several ‘factory of the future’ use cases. These include optimising the production process, introducing AI to the factory to monitor operations in real time and predict downtime in advance, and enabling the use of robotics to streamline production even further. 

Virgin Media O2 plans big upgrades

In an effort to help digitise more of rural Britian – and as part of the UK Government’s Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme – Virgin Media O2 will be expanding its 4G network to an additional 50 sites and has secured planning content for work at a future 100 sites.

While SRN upgrades ensue, Virgin Media O2 is calling on policy makers, planning authorities and landlords to remove obstacles and ensure rural communities fulfil their potential. Specifically, the provider wants regulations in place that will make it faster and easier to deploy the infrastructure required to deliver high quality connectivity. And the Autumn Budget cash injection will hopefully be help towards this.  

Jeanie York, CTO at Virgin Media O2, commented, “The manufacturing industry is key to the success of the UK economy, and our Great Rural Revival report demonstrates that improved connectivity can unlock an additional £8.8 billion of further growth for rural manufacturing, as well as increasing employment by almost 8%.

“The last decade has seen fixed and mobile networks rolled out to new corners of the UK and we are committed to continuing this rollout. By working closely with industry partners, the UK Government, planning authorities and landowners, we can deliver the essential network upgrades that will enable rural manufacturers to adopt new technologies and continue to thrive.”

Meanwhile, in other innovation-related news, industrial biotech firm MicroHarvest has opened a pilot plant for the production of single-cell protein samples.

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1 comment

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