Increasing automation in the post-COVID Era

Published:  24 November, 2020

The theme of the second in the series of Talking Industry panel discussions was Increasing Automation in the post-COVID era. Chairman Andy Pye reflects on a session which set out to look forward to the opportunities, but couldn’t quite shake off the barriers from the past.

This month’s Talking Industry event was extremely engaging in the amount of discussion generated in the Chat alongside the live debate, so much so that we were unable to cover all the points raised in the allocated time. Subsequently the debates continued post-event via LinkedIn.

One important question during the event set the scene by asking the very basic question of “what do we mean by automation?” I posed this to Brendan O’Dowd, Analog Devices: “That’s a great question,” he said. “And to me, it’s everything from the simplest jig that enables you to drill holes more repeatedly, all the way up to your dark factory that you know, doesn’t have a single person inside and is completely automated. It’s anything that that helps do a job more easily.

“We want to take some of the dirty dangerous jobs away from people and automate them. But there’s a huge gap in terms of the higher skilled roles that are required to develop the systems, manage and run them and keep them operating. And making sure that you can operate automated systems safely is one of the barriers - if you have to put a big cage around everything, then it hits productivity.

“The bottom line is, these are all return on investment decisions that are made by companies, who need to spend money upfront. Machine flexibility is key. There are plenty of places where a flexible robot or Cobot can do different tasks and this is a way that you can leapfrog your competition.”

Continuing the overall theme around barriers to entry within automation, and why the UK is falling behind our global competitors and not adopting a higher uptake of automation and robotics, Kamran Anwar, business development manager - Strategic Solutions at Mitsubishi Electric Europe BV. Commented: “I do feel UK companies have a different attitude to manufacturing than other countries around Europe. One example is a company in Central Europe were testing AI and ML to reduce waste and boost productivity, yet the same company in the UK were focusing on ‘sweating their assets’.”

He added: “ Most UK manufacturers (may be the same abroad) want a machine to last 10-15 years but want an ROI of 1-2 years…in many cases, this is an unrealistic expectation, especially for bespoke solutions. So typically companies choose a cheaper solution to meet ROI and get CapEx approved, then a few months down line the client isn’t happy as their initial requirements are not met, so they modify the line/machine to meet the same requirements as before and this whole process ends up costing more and taking longer.

“Apart from culture, most companies want a reference of that new technology installed to have confidence and manage their risk. However, none of the major automation or robotics vendors have their Global/EMEA HQs based in the UK (to my knowledge) so during the POC stage we’d often rely on support from our colleagues based in Global/EMEA HQs. Because of this structure the UK will continue to play catch up regarding the adoption of new technology.”

Mark Buckland, UK functional unit manager at Contec - Industrial Automation Solutionagreed: “I believe the biggest roadblock is the ROI and CapEx approval as you mentioned. Given the relatively low cost of labour in the UK versus that in Germany it is often more difficult to justify the CapEx investment as it is nearly impossible to obtain a 1-2 year ROI based on labour savings alone. The mindset for significant strategic automation investment needs to take a more long term approach to ROI 3-5 years versus 1-2 years but not all companies are able to justify this.”

Many German industries are three generations on from Ground Zero (and of course many are family companies) yet the willingness to embrace change lives on.

Panellist Mike Wilson (Chief Automation Officer at MTC - Manufacturing Technology Centre, commented: “In the UK, we like to keep our old machines running. We’re very proud that we can keep all this old equipment going. Whereas in Germany, they’re very proud that they bought new ones. The cultural issue is an important factor but not the only barrier. Perhaps a future topic could be about culture and investment?”

This is a point that Volley had expounded on in the main debate. “The very first Cobots in the UK were deployed at BMW and I was fortunate enough to be a part of the team who implemented them. And it was very challenging. One of the barriers is cultural; the second barrier is the technological step change. The programming methods, the way you do risk assessments, the way you plan and design “New Age Automation.” Initiatives like the MTC will help educate more and more manufacturers in the UK. And how can we do it quickly? I personally think that the biggest opportunity that lies right ahead for the UK because manufacturers worldwide are having problems. It’s not just UK manufacturers, right now, the whole world is having problems.”

The LinkedIn debate which followed the event included comments from Michael Stallwood, director at Design & Automation Solutions, drawing on his experience of over 30 years, who said there is too much reliance on cheap labour at the expense of long-term investment.

He added: “There are no real government incentives for major investment, and this is something that could easily be achieved through the tax system. For most of my working life of 30 years, manufacturing has been seen as a dirty cousin to the finance and service industries. This is starting to change but needs far more promotion and support from our leaders.”

While manufacturing engineer Dan Arey, commented: “In the UK a large percentage of our manufacturing centres around highly regulated industries (defence, medical, aerospace) - these industries typically use well proven ‘legacy’ equipment to minimise risk.

“The validation of new equipment is then lengthy, time consuming and expensive- or even deemed as an unnecessary risk entirely. It is so much easier automating from ground zero, than it is to automate a legacy process (that may be highly manual currently) - I think the manufacturing catapults are doing a good job to bridge this gap, to give the option of ‘offline’ confidence building - but I feel it is not enough I feel. This is something I really think many universities should aim to try provide more...”

Mike Wilson was not so sure however: “You have a valid point, but I do believe there is a large section of UK manufacturing that does not have the same constraints. The general trend across the UK is much the same so it cannot just be the more regulated sectors which are holding us back.”

Supply chain consultant Matthew Wright supported Arey’s view: “Having worked in both pharmaceutical and defence there is certainly a lot of validation and quality requirements which can cause delay. Also, quality requirements for longer changeovers and market specific requirements reduce productivity. I still think there is a lot we can do in the UK in these industries and the key here is encouraging the culture within the organisation to trust its employees and encourage challenge to the current way of working. It is not that we are capacity constrained, but mindset and management constrained. This will need to change and hopefully we can get more apprenticeships like they have in Germany and Switzerland for most roles in the supply chain, on the ground experience is really important when making decisions at a senior level.”

Robotics consultant John Roberts has worked for two large German automation businesses added: “In that time, I have been lucky to visit lots of manufacturing plants across Europe. If you visit a German factory you will be shown the latest piece of equipment which - the host will proudly say - represents the cutting edge of technology. Visit a UK factory and you will likely be shown a machine 50 years old and “still going”. What’s strange is the same person will have the latest phone in their pocket and a shiny new German car parked outside. Why do we in the UK sweat our production machine assets far beyond their useful life?

Noel Ferguson, head of client services at Optimised Energy disagrees: “Working across all manufacturing sectors I see investment every day. I think we are sometimes guilty of painting the UK into a stereotype and holding them up to a German Stereotype. There are great innovative companies that are at the global forefront in some sectors. Machine learning,

IOT, data analytics, and cutting edge technology are alive and well in UK manufacturing. A wonderful sector with great heritage, and let’s not forget that it is this heritage in some sectors that makes what these companies make the most desirable in the world.”

Mike Wilson believes that the younger generations want to invest in new equipment. “Perhaps the older generations are proud that we can keep the old machinery running?”, he reflected. “Or is it those who control expenditure who are the barrier?”

O’Dowd fears that, when it comes to attracting more people to the manufacturing/engineering sector, there seems a disconnect between the latter stages of the education system and industry. “In the earlier stages of education, children are more engaged and fascinated by engineering, but somehow this does not then transform into the uptake of more jobs in the industry.”

Dr Susan Scurlock, chief executive and founder of Primary Engineer, established in 2005, believes in the importance of educating children about the careers in engineering and industry and manufacturing. She explained: “In order to do that, you’ve got to inspire children as young as early as you can, within range of careers that are available to them.

The panel

Vaibhav Boricha (Volley), director, Vikaso

Brendan O’Dowd, general manager, Industrial Automation at Analog Devices

Dr Susan Scurlock MBE, founder, Primary Engineer

Mike Wilson, chief automation officer (Technology Strategy), Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC)

Discussion areas

Barriers to automation/robotics adoption in the UK

Condition-based monitoring for asset health

Embedded security for trusted data

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