40 years on, the new world meets the old world

Published:  05 July, 2021

In celebration of PWE’s 40th Anniversary, consultant editor Andy Pye reflects on some of the key changes to have influenced the Plant and Works Engineering arena over the 40 years of its existence

To be self-indulgent for a moment, I joined my first publishing company 41 years ago in 1980. I worked on Design Engineering magazine (of which I later became editor) and it was published by Morgan Grampian. Both were market leaders of their time - and yet neither exist today.

At that time, the magazine production process was very different to the electronic one of today. Copy was produced in triplicate on mechanical typewriters, where we used carbon paper to generate three copies on white, blue and pink paper for filing purposes. Covered with vast amounts of Tippex, the copy was sent on motorcycles to the other end of the country for typesetting; back came a galley proof, which was sub-edited, and then returned with a layout for a final page proof to be generated.

Final corrections were done by phone and if necessary approved by fax. The whole process took many more people and several days to complete, compared to the computer-based systems used today, where editors write directly into a layout template. Many manufacturing processes have similarly been revolutionised over four decades!

But the demise of the magazine and its publishing company, and the move from manual to automatic processes, closely parallel  what has happened in the manufacturing and process industries. The publishing company was the subject of a management buyout, before being broken up and sold to other, larger publishing organisations and ultimately losing its identity altogether. How many times have we seen that in manufacturing industry, and the suppliers that feed it? A cursory glance at an archived copy of PWE in 1981 will show editorial and advertising from many companies which have since disappeared, as buyouts and consolidation have occurred. Design Engineering, despite once being the dominant player in its market, proved unable to sustain the changes of ownership and economic pressures

Internet and smartphones

From a pure technology point of view, how things have changed! For example people listening to a concert in 2019, where everyone is holding up a mobile device to get a poor quality recording of the event, whilst missing the ambience of the event itself that listeners in 1981 would have enjoyed. Perhaps a stark reminder that not everything about modernisation is necessarily good. In 1981, there was no internet and there were no mobile devices. The internet has revolutionised our domestic lives and in manufacturing plants, on-going processes are still developing through the emergence of Internet 4.0 technologies.

Automation Perhaps the most impactful change on the shop floor has been the transition to automation. While automation has been around since the 1950s, the widespread implementation of robotics has only gained momentum over the past decade or so. It still takes highly skilled, well-trained workers to oversee the operation of robotics, and automation has increased the average worker output value in many manufacturing-related industries.

Even so, as in publishing, the headcount has dramatically reduced to the point where an entire manufacturing plant can be managed by, at most, a handful of people (cue the standing joke about a modern plant being managed by a man and a dog; the dog being there to prevent the man from interfering with the plant, and the man is there to feed the dog). Automation, together with the ease-ofprogramming of machines, has resulted in hitherto unimaginable flexibility in batch production. Batch sizes of one are possible in certain cases, such as in the pharmaceutical industry, where individual medicine packages can now be produced for individual patients 

Occupational safety

In the automotive sector, humans have slowly been replaced by robots to help with hard labour. At SEAT’s Martorell factory near Barcelona, workers are helped out with heavy lifting by state-of-the-art robots. In contrast, in earlier times, workers had to endure temperatures of more than 40C - with no airconditioning.

Reflecting the increasing emphasis on occupational safety which has been evident over the past 40 years, cameras and sensors capture the movements of factory workers to create a 3D avatar, using analysis software similar to that used to create characters in video games. Then, virtual reality technology is used to simulate different positions on the assembly line and assess what modifications should be made. As well as reducing injuries in factory operatives, the biomechanics lab helps SEAT save time and money by determining the design of assembly lines before they are built.

“Some workers perform the same motions up to 100 times a day, so job rotation and the design of the assembly line are crucial in order to prevent possible injuries,” said Sonia Garcia, who is responsible for Ergonomics at SEAT. “The avatar is a 3D image that accurately reproduces the speed and range of the motions. We can simulate different positions until we find the best option, for example, for attaching the rear hatch. This allows us to save time and money in comparison to performing tests on the actual line.”

Systems integration

Early automated manufacturing systems tended to use proprietary assemblies based on the products of a single supplier of automation equipment. One supplier’s equipment did not easily talk to anyone else’s. But with the emergence of common protocols, such as Ethernet/IP and Profibus, it is increasingly possible to use best-in-class products from a variety of suppliers. These can now be interconnected in a relative straightforward way, known as “plug-and-play”.

Display technology

An average person stares at displays around five to six hours a day, about half the time we are awake. Display technology plays an important role in factories, as in everyday life. In 1981, CRT displays were commonplace in offices, with so-called ruggedised flat-screen television possible. In 1995, full colour plasma displays were introduced, but have lost nearly all market share, mostly due to competition from the low-cost and low power consumption of LCD and the more expensive but high-contrast OLED flat-panel displays.

An OLED (organic light-emitting diode) is a light-emitting diode (LED) in which the emissive electroluminescent layer is a film of organic compound that emits light in response to an electric current.

Digitisation and maintenance

Over four decades there has been a progressive move from reactive maintenance - having spare parts available for when a part fails - to preventive and then predictive maintenance. Digitalisation is helping manufacturers take advantage of big data analytics to bundle and sell a variety of services to their customers. For example, manufacturers of machinery can offer conditioning-based maintenance that includes real-time monitoring of the equipment. In addition to bringing in additional revenues, this also helps to foster a stronger long-term relationship that can increase customer retention.

Preventive maintenance (PM) is work that is scheduled based on calendar time or asset runtime. This reduces plant downtime compared to reactive maintenance. PM can be compared to an annual physical check-up. Technicians perform these maintenance tasks when everything is still running smoothly in order to prevent future unplanned breakdowns.

Predictive maintenance (PdM) is work that is scheduled as-needed based on the real-time conditions of assets. Modern assets, as well as upgraded legacy assets, can use internet communications to relay information about their condition and likely time to failure. This approach promises cost savings over routine or time-based preventive maintenance, because tasks are performed only when warranted. Plant downtime is reduced still further.

Safety over WiFi

DFA Media recently ran a webinar sponsored by Euchner in which the subject of running plant safely using WiFi was discussed in depth. One reader with extensive experience in implementing safety over WiFi commented that it should not be considered if you are only trying to save wiring costs. 5GHz has become the new go-to waveband for virtually all new WiFi-enabled devices entering the factory or office environment. The UK has a limited number of sub-frequencies which we are allowed to use. Devices that come in from the EU can have been set up and tested using subfrequencies which are not allowed in the UK, and without the correct knowledge, the end user does not know.

And despite the use of ProfiSafe (the wellknown and stable safety protocol), the use of leaky coax cables for signal transmission can make a network susceptible to external and internal interference! So a promising technology, but still a work in progress.


Offshoring describes a situation where work that was once performed in-house is shipped to third-party entities (often located overseas) who can perform the task at a lower cost. Driven by inferior or inconsistent quality, shipping delays and communication challenges, many manufacturers are reversing this trend and bringing back to work to local subcontractors, or even bringing it back in-house (onshoring). Apart from being good news for local suppliers, as we urgently face the challenge of climate change, it must be sensible for the carbon footprint for manufacturers to focus on their local markets and proximate supply chains, rather than committing to trading over huge transportation distances.

Of course, climate change was not at the top of the agenda in 1981, although perhaps it should have been! In another 40 years, we will  know if we addressed the problem in time. 

An operator on the control panel of old power plant

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