Automation enables microscope maker to enter new markets

Posted on 27 Feb 2018 by Jonny Williamson

The CTO of a British manufacturer of robotic systems discusses the challenges facing a small batch SME and how automating test facilities helped expand his business' horizons.

The company manufactures among others microscope automation systems – image courtesy of Prior.

Prior Scientific Instruments is a manufacturer of robotic systems for the microscope and imaging industry and was established in London almost 100 years ago.

Until 2000, the firm was a traditional microscope manufacturer, then the company stopped manufacturing its routine microscopes in the UK and specialised in making specialist microscopes.

The reason behind that shift in focus was that the company was increasingly struggling to compete with low-cost microscope units coming from the Far East.

The Manufacturer spoke with Stuart Jarvis, the company’s CTO, about Prior’s endeavour to deploy automation and why capital expenditure is crucial for exploring new business avenues.

Jarvis said it’s necessary to draw a sharp distinction between automating the manufacturing process on the shop floor and automating the test facilities on the other side. He explained: “When you ask me about automation in general, we have to specify the time frame you are talking about.

“Being in the (manufacturing) business , we have been investing in CNC machining centres for over 35 years, but the only area where we have literally automated is the test facilities.

“Automating test facilities not only means gaining a higher throughput. But it also generates data which can then be can interrogated and fed back into the Product Development Cycle.”

Flexible automation for small batches?

But, when it comes to automating the Assembly process, Jarvis thinks that Prior can’t get around facing certain challenges, mainly because of the batch sizes the company produces.

He said: “We have quite a wide product range, and therefore a very low volume. Our batch size rarely exceeds 50 items at a time. For most of our lots, the actual assembly time comes to no more than a few hours; and there is a constant change on the assembly line.

“Currently, I don’t think there would be a benefit from automating the assembly process for us,” Jarvis underlined.

Even though, Prior hasn’t invested in automating assembly on the shop floor, the company continually invests in its machine shop and in the automation of new test facilities.

Jarvis concluded: “We are constantly looking to invest in the machine shop. One of the main new business sectors we are to invest in is the industrial metrology area which requires a greater accuracy.

“Our existing test facilities will need further development to deliver the resolutions needed for the metrology market.”

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