Manufacturers urged to automate

6 min read

As manufacturing rides on a wave of enthusiasm from Government, the lack of automation is causing real concern. Justin Cunningham reports.

UK engineering and manufacturing has an opportunity; not least because government, mainstream media and the general public all want to see more of it and view it as key to driving economic recovery. Earlier this month, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills launched its 'Make it in Great Britain' campaign, which aims to showcase the variety of products made in the UK and promote the nation's manufacturing industry. But, while the enthusiasm is perhaps higher than it has been for generations, the UK is perhaps not always the high added value player that it aspires to be. When it comes to automation, there is still much reluctance from many industry sectors. Notably, the UK automotive sector gets it, and is certainly on a par, if not ahead, of many European car makers. But take the automotive sector out of the equation and the picture becomes quite different. Compared to our European neighbours, the UK lags behind by a significant margin when it comes to using advanced technologies to produce its goods. As a result, the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA) has been awarded £600,000 to fund its Automating Manufacturing Programme. The primary aim is to offer help and support to industry to encourage the uptake of associated technologies in the UK. While some readers might be wondering what relevance this has for them, the role of the design engineer is essential in getting this technology rolled out. Design engineers are the people that need to take the initiative and not just design products for manufacture, but design products that inherently lend themselves to automated production processes. This is key in influencing the use of the right technology, for the right application, in the right environment. Mike Wilson, president of BARA, says: "One of the challenges that many people think we face in the UK is that a lot of our firms are smaller companies making bespoke products rather than larger companies doing high-volume production. Therefore, it makes it potentially difficult to apply. But, if you have got the right flexible automation then it is equally attractive and potentially very beneficial. "It is the designers that are the key to allowing that to happen in many cases. If you are assembling something you need to design it in a way that automation can be applied to put it together. Often, if you design for automation you actually get a better product which can be very easily put together and is therefore more reliable and cost effective." The programme is primarily set up to assist SMEs in all industry sectors and will offer independent and impartial advice to assist in the implementation of automation technologies. The overall aim is to increase the competitive edge of UK industry. BARA has carefully selected independent advisers who will offer support to the enrolled manufacturers in two stages. The first is a strategic review of their manufacturing operation, commencing with an audit aiming to identify opportunities for improving production through automation, followed by a recommendation report which is presented at a review meeting. The second stage will provide a more detailed intervention to develop the outcomes from the audit, which will provide the client manufacturer with the knowledge and information required to plan and successfully implement the automation solution. A study carried out by BARA showed a number of barriers that were impeding the use of robotics and automating systems in the UK especially compared to our European counterparts. The first is barrier is awareness. Many UK companies don't realise the potential benefits. The second is risk and resource. In many cases, especially in the current climate, shifting a production environment is risky and in a lot of cases financially difficult. Additionally, the study showed that many firms do not have the in house knowledge to identify and develop automation opportunities either through lack of skill or lack of time. Fundamentally, this is the issue that the programme is intended to address. "The overall objective is to help UK manufacturing grow by being more competitive, and automation is one area in which we are sadly weak," says Wilson. "It is very difficult to measure automation as it can be hard to quantify. But one of the things we can measure is robot usage. "Robot density is the number of robots per 10,000 employees. Germany has 144 robots per 10,000 employees, Italy has 114, Spain 57, France 56, and the UK just 27. And, if you look at other indicators like PLC usage you get the same sort of picture." While many feel that the implementation of automation systems will result in fewer jobs, a number of studies show the opposite. The fact is, the UK is not a low labour cost economy. But even China is investing heavily, buying nearly 15,000 robots last year compared to just 880 in the UK. And Foxconn's Chinese operations say they are going to install some 1 million robots within the next three years. Steve Brambley, deputy director at Gambica – the trade association for Instrumentation, Control, Automation and Laboratory Technology – says: "It's becoming less about labour costs as those countries begin to invest and implement automation systems. We can compete again, but only if we also invest in the right flexible production technologies. Smart automated systems and processes... represent a key component to grow and rebalance the British economy." In terms of robots being brought and put to use, the level of investment from the UK does appear to be relatively low. However, the UK tends to be fairly unusual is so far as that, in many cases, it is a lower volume production of more customised and bespoke products. As a result, the investment seems to be more focused towards providing flexible manufacturing systems. Steve Sands, marketing manager at Festo, says: "Flexible automation systems are definitely growing. A very strong part of our business is in pick-and-place systems. These are not just pneumatic systems, but three-, four- and five-axis, servo-driven systems. And this is still growing phenomenally." Other areas for exploitation include the packaging and distribution side of an operation. For example, the UK automates more of its food manufacturing processes than many European countries. Festo sees a lot of potential in many different market sectors for its 'pick and place' machines. "There are developments coming in agriculture, for example, where they are looking to take the food processing closer to the field," says Sands. "Rather than transporting low value material, the may actually do the processing much closer to the source, allowing them to then transport higher value product. So there are other areas of opportunity not so closely related to the raw manufacturers." However, Sands also has a word of warning for companies and design engineers that are looking to invest and implement automation technology. Industry has seen many examples of white elephant projects that result in a very high cost to the company, but don't yield the results that people want and expect. A lot comes down to making sure the technology that is used is appropriate, can be properly installed and maintained, so the maximum lifetime value from the system can be extracted. "The engineers that bring these systems together need to engage an awful lot of people," says Sands. "And it is up to suppliers like Festo to provide that support to designers and assist them in getting the engagement and training to get the payback that is expected from those investments. Manchester based power management company, Eaton, is also keen to get the message out to engineers and is developing a concept of 'lean automation'. The basic premise is to take lean manufacturing principles and apply them to automation systems. Lean automation aims to make implementation of getting automation machinery installed and working a much quicker and easier process. One way it is helping firms achieve this is by helping firms develop standardised platform designs for their production equipment. These can then be used across a range of machines, to make a range of different products. In practice, Eaton has developed two primary technologies to facilitate this. The first is a bus-based control wiring system for the control panels, known as the SmartWire-DT. This essentially eliminates the need for much of the conventional wiring by using a single bus cable. This modular approach is scalable and flexible, allowing any control device from a simple sensor to a complex motion controller to send data to a PLC for onward transmission to a high-level SCADA or ERP system. The second is the integration of the human machine interface (HMI) and Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) in to a single compact unit. The benefits include cost and space saving as well as simplified programming. "Lean automation is an attractive concept that is starting to transform the way automation systems are designed and built," says Stuart Greenwood, product marketing manager for industrial automation and control at Eaton. "Clearly, there will be further developments, but that shouldn't deter potential adopters from taking advantage. "Already components and technologies are available that provide almost all of the benefits of lean automation, and those benefits are undoubtedly the key to unlocking competitive advantage and gaining market share."