Dr Stuart Edwards, independent consultant and adviser, college chair, and honorary research associate at the UCL Knowledge Lab

The recent speech from @GavinWilliamson on #FEReform indicated that the autumn White Paper would set out plans “to build a world class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities.”   

One lesser known feature of the German system is an extensive network of facilities described as ‘Learning Factories’.  These play an important role in linking together their innovation and technical education systems, and in supporting SMEs to adopt the digital technologies often referred to as ‘Industry 4.0’.  

So what role might Learning Factories play in responding to the mounting economic and jobs crisis following in the wake of the COVID lockdown, and in turning this moment into an opportunity to build a world class further education system?

During the lockdown I have been working on a study, commissioned by the Gatsby Foundation with support from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, to look at the potential of Learning Factories in UK.   The concept is not particularly familiar here, and is sometimes misunderstood, but the new needs and opportunities thrown up by the pandemic could mean it is an approach that’s time has come.  

So what is a ‘Learning Factory‘? 

For some people the term can conjure up a negative image, like a school that is a rote learning production line for exams.  That is a misconception.  A learning factory is designed to facilitate experiential learning, practical projects and collaborative problem solving. Imagine an industrial adventure playground rather than a classroom.

At its simplest, the concept of a ‘Learning Factory’ refers to a facility with aspects of an authentic production environment designed and used primarily for the purpose of learning.  It is not a simple duplicate of an industrial factory but designed to best suit and serve an intended experiential learning process. The facility may be physical or virtual, or a blended combination. It generally involves multiple machines or operations which can be flexibly reconfigured, and can extend to include supply chains and customer services. 

Learning Factories can be owned and run by universities, technical colleges, centres of innovation, individual companies, or groups of companies.  They can support a range of learning uses: applied research and innovation projects with industry; further and higher education; training of technicians and managers; trainer training; demonstrating technology to SMEs or to teachers, careers advisers and pupils; wider marketing.  The same Learning Factory is often used for multiple purposes, and facilities that link research and innovation with teaching and training can be a particularly effective model for the transfer of new skills and ways of working needed for adoption of new technologies.

Origins and global trends

The concept is generally recognised as having originated in the USA in the mid-1990s when the National Science Foundation awarded a consortium led by Penn State University a grant to develop a ‘Learning Factory’. A college-wide infrastructure and a large facility were equipped with machines, materials and tools that could be used to support industry-sponsored design projects.  The Penn State Learning Factory has continued to operate ever since, and by 2020 had completed more than 2,750 projects with some 13,000 students.

Since the 1990s the concept has spread widely with increasing use of Learning Factories, particularly in Europe and especially in Germany.   By 2019 there were at least 120 Learning Factories worldwide, with an accelerating trend for more to be developed.   An International Association of Learning Factories has been formed and annual conferences held over the past decade with academic papers published.   The consultancy firm McKinsey runs its own worldwide network of Learning Factories with Capability/Digital Capability Centers located in Brazil, China, Germany, India, Italy, Singapore and the USA.  

The spread of Learning Factories can be linked to wider trends in learning and manufacturing:  growing recognition of the value of experiential learning; development of new learning technologies; lean production and green manufacturing; digitalisation and Industry 4.0; shortened production cycles; globalisation of production.  In summary, experiential learning facilitated by technology in an authentic production environment has gained increasing recognition as an effective way of transmitting the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed for the adoption of new approaches to manufacturing.

Study visits and Learning Factories in Germany  

The significance of Learning Factories was confirmed when a team sponsored by Gatsby undertook international study visits to seek examples of good practice in how the skills system could be aligned more coherently to anchor and support the diffusion of innovation.  They observed various forms of Learning Factory playing a pivotal role in linking the skills and innovation systems together, particularly in the USA, Singapore and Germany.  There was also a growing trend for Learning Factories to be adapted and commissioned specifically to support manufacturing digitalisation strategies.  

In Germany alone there are at least 50 full-scale Learning Factories hosted by universities, companies, and the network of Fraunhofer Institutes (applied research and innovation centres similar to the UK Catapults). There are also strategically co-ordinated developments at federal state level, where for example Baden-Wurttemberg is installing more than 40 ‘Smart Factories’ in its state vocational schools catering for both apprentices and diploma students.  These Smart Factories are in effect Industry 4.0 simulators which share learning scenarios that can be tailored to local industry while remaining common across similar colleges.

So what is happening in the UK?

When I first started looking two years ago, I wondered if this trend had bypassed the UK.   I found a striking lack of facilities calling themselves ‘Learning Factories’, McKinsey’s global network did not extend to the UK, and UK-based authors did not feature in the academic literature.   However, some of this is a matter of terminology and as I dug beneath the surface, I found a number of facilities that demonstrate the main features of Learning Factories in a manufacturing context.  

There are universities that have kitted out their engineering departments with learning factory equipment for student project work; companies like Nissan and Toyota set up replica production lines for training new workers in partnership with colleges; and there are facilities linked to the High Value Manufacturing Catapult network, such as the AMRC Factory 2050 in Sheffield and the planned National Manufacturing Institute in Scotland.  A well-established example that covers a wide range of uses is the University of Lincoln’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing which has a purpose-built food factory for teaching and research that serves in one place the needs of the food industry for further education, higher education (levels 2 to 6, including degree apprenticeships), research and innovation.  There are other examples which, though not factories, adopt a similar approach in other industries such as the military, rail, oil and gas, nuclear etc where gaining real world experience can be both dangerous and very costly.  

So the UK may be behind some of its competitors, but there are foundations to build on.   Back in 2013 the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (CAVTL) effectively endorsed a learning factory type approach when it included as main characteristics of excellent vocational teaching and learning programmes “a clear line of sight to work” and “access to industry-standard facilities and resources reflecting the ways in which technology is transforming work”.  It also highlighted the centrality of “practical problem solving and critical reflection on experience, including learning from mistakes in real and simulated settings”.  

The challenge now is how to build on these foundations so the potential of Learning Factories and similar approaches in other sectors is harnessed more strategically to help address systemic problems holding back productivity and levelling up, including technical skill shortages at levels 4/5, diffusing innovation, and smaller companies struggling to know where to start with digital transformation.   

There is some gathering momentum.  The emergent network of Institutes of Technology in England represents a major opportunity and many in the first wave are now incorporating or planning Learning Factory facilities.  Centres of Innovation such as the Catapults now clearly recognise the need to work in partnership to secure the ‘skills value chains’needed to anchor innovation.  The industry-led Made Smarter initiative is establishing a national ecosystem to support industry digitalisation.   All this goes wider than FE, but making these connections, I would argue, is essential for a world class FE system, and Learning Factories are a means to do so.

Finally, what difference has the pandemic made? So far I have identified seven new factors:     


The Seven-fold Impact of COVID-19 on the FE System

1. Acceleration of Industry 4.0

Most commentators and industry insiders believe the COVID crisis will accelerate the digitalisation of manufacturing.  The widespread suspension of production and the need to adopt social distancing protocols as it resumes have been powerful drivers to review existing processes and look to adopt new technologies. 

2. Shortening of manufacturing supply chains

The pandemic has highlighted the risk of dependency on extended supply chains and many companies are looking for opportunities to ‘onshore’ production. The adoption of digital technologies is needed to make UK-based production globally competitive.

3. Maintaining apprenticeship opportunities

Mounting job losses and the ambition to expand apprenticeships raise questions about how much demand can be met and how much work-based provision can sustained using the current model, and what is the best use of the apprenticeship levy.  A network of high quality, authentic Learning Factories with the capacity to deliver more widely and at scale through technology could play some role in closing this gap.

4. Large scale skilling needed for jobs of the future

Many of the jobs being lost will not return, and large numbers of young people and adults will need to be skilled and reskilled in the competencies required for jobs of the future, including those associated with Industry 4.0.  Apprenticeships are unlikely to be a sufficiently flexible response to meet the scale of need for all.  Learning Factories could play a wider role in delivering short upskilling and reskilling courses designed around competencies for the future, and perhaps accredited through micro-credentials.

5. Availability of technical expertise

Large scale redundancies in areas of advanced manufacturing such as aerospace may make it easier to access personnel with the up-to-date technical expertise needed for Learning Factories to operate effectively.

6. Adoption of distance and blended learning

The primary delivery model of colleges and training providers changed almost overnight.  The degree of effectiveness with which educational technology has been deployed may be variable, and reliance on it will recede, but the impact has been profound in terms of showing what could be possible and providing a new stimulus for the technology supplier market.  There is an opportunity to build on what has happened by developing hybrid Learning Factories which combine physical resources with sophisticated use of ‘digital twins’, simulations and learning technology to maximise flexibility and reach.

7. A new willingness to collaborate, be flexible and innovate

Many instances exist where the COVID-19 crisis has given rise to new ways of working.  A notable engineering example is the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium led by the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.  This involved an unprecedented ramp-up of production facilities for two existing ventilator systems, with seven entirely new manufacturing facilities being established to produce 10 years’ supply of ventilators in just 10 weeks.  The team came together remotely using a virtual design tool, created and simulated the production line virtually before anyone went on the shop floor, and trained some 3000 individuals in advance to carry out the assembly and testing using hundreds of Hololens 2 devices.  The lessons learnt from such examples could be applied to other challenges faced by UK manufacturing, including upskilling to support digital transformation and zero carbon.


Flexing to achieve a common purpose

Each of the above tends to reinforce and make more urgent the case for promoting a Learning Factory approach, particularly if that is considered more broadly to include sophisticated simulations of working environments for learning purposes.  As with the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium, it is not a question of starting from scratch, but of better aligning existing resources and investments, and being prepared to flex existing rules and procedures to achieve a common purpose. 

Dr Stuart Edwards, independent consultant and adviser, college chair, and honorary research associate at the UCL Knowledge Lab

Dr Edwards was formerly a senior official that the Departments for Education and for Business Innovation and Skills.  His study of Learning Factories has been commissioned by the Gatsby Foundation, working with the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, and is due to be completed in September.

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