February 2018




A new Protolabs survey reveals a perception versus reality gap for the UK manufacturing sector’s digital capabilities


New research commissioned by the leading provider of technology-enabled, rapid manufacturing solutions, Protolabs - in partnership with Censuswide - reveals that a high proportion of senior decision makers do not acknowledge the role digitisation plays in manufacturing; nor do they recognise the benefits of automation and digital technology in UK manufacturing.

The survey of senior business decision makers - including those within manufacturing businesses - found that more than a quarter (28.2%) still associate manufacturing with ‘assembly lines’, and a similar number (24.6%) associate it with ‘manual labour’. The survey further revealed that only one in ten see any association between manufacturing and ‘Industry 4.0’, a term now popularly used to describe the increased use of web-connected industrial processes, which employs software, robotics and advanced automation for greater productivity, quality and efficiency.

Another statistic that makes a strong statement is that relating to the perception of manufacturing.  To this question, almost half of senior decision makers (48.7%) indicated that UK companies need to invest more in R&D to retain their high position in the global manufacturing market.   When asked what is required to support industry growth, over a third (35%) support a greater focus on attracting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to develop fresh talent and expertise to bolster industry growth.

Stephen Dyson at Protolabs, comments, “The UK manufacturing sector is powered by innovation, and driven by entrepreneurial individuals partnered with highly-skilled engineers.  This sector has embraced the benefits of digital technologies and automation possibly more than any other, and now the growth of digitisation is starting to transform manufacturing. ‘Industry 4.0’ is a more than a concept – we are living in it right now.  However, the results of this survey indicate that there is limited understanding of Industry 4.0 and the impact it has already made, and will continue to make, to the progress of manufacturing.  Additionally, the survey statistics reflect that manufacturing is not viewed as a high-tech, digitally-savvy industry, which is what British businesses increasingly are.  Instead, the inherent perception remains of manufacturing with manual, labour-intensive processes.”

Despite recent publicity around the rise of automation, respondents to the survey indicated that automation is not expected to have a significant effect on their business models. In fact, 15% of those surveyed have no automation in their manufacturing services, and one in ten (9.7%) expect no or only a little (15%) increase in automation in their business over the next five years.

Dyson continues, “Automation and digital technologies can now rapidly manufacture large quantities of parts, in production-ready quality, previously not conceivable. For those businesses not directly utilising automation or automated process, rather than overlook this trend, the assertion is that automation (in some guise) can drive cost and time savings in all businesses in the long-run.  In fact, it could be argued that companies that do not embrace digital, automated processes or technology could be placing their business at a disadvantage in today’s fast-paced climate.”

Jim Davison, EEF Network Director, commented, "Throughout the year we perform intensive research to determine how we can best support manufacturing related businesses in the UK.  Member research—such as this by Protolabs—helps us to create a full picture of what is affecting industry, while also identifying key factors that may hinder businesses making critical business decisions.  Where findings or trends contrast with previous EEF research, this serves as a prompt to drive further investigation.  Ultimately, all research is carried out to address the influences that can restrict UK business competitiveness.  This year, with Brexit ahead, we must band together as an industry to ensure we inject buoyancy in the market and to maintain—and boost where possible—business productivity.”





Protolabs commissioned Censuswide to survey 301 senior business decision makers (including 225 from the manufacturing industry) in UK businesses in November 2017. The data was analysed and collated for form the basis of this press release.




About Protolabs

Protolabs is the world's fastest digital manufacturing source for custom prototypes and low-volume production parts. The technology-enabled company uses advanced 3D printing, CNC machining and injection moulding technologies to produce parts within days. The result is an unprecedented speed-to-market value for designers and engineers and an on-demand resource throughout a product’s life cycle. Visit for more information. 


For more information, please contact:


Sara Williams

Marketing Manager – Northern Europe

+44 (0) 1952 683541


Alice Davyson, Hotwire Global (for Proto Labs)