Slowly but surely, the automation of manufacturing processes in the UK is growing. One-time conveyor systems manufacturer turned automation champion, CKF Systems, is part of that story. Will Stirling reports.
Bryan Wheeler and the directors of Gloucester-based CKF Systems are on a mission to educate manufacturers about the merits of automated production.
The Manufacturer is very focused on the urgent need to increase the uptake of automation technology in the UK. If you are interested in helping us develop the UK market for automation and joining the first meeting of our automation advisory board on 28 May, please contact Henry Anson – [email protected].
CKF Systems will turn 25-years old in July, originally designing and marketing a range of conveyor systems, then moving into bespoke handling systems before evolving into a competitive provider of integrated robotic solutions.
“We need to communicate more effectively the positive impacts [of automation and robotics] for the workplace” – Bryan Wheeler, Managing Director, CKF
“The firm’s move into automation was gradual,” explains Wheeler. “We recognised the many applications for robots in manufacturing, yet decided in the early stages to take a pragmatic approach. “Automation was expensive and there was reluctance in the UK to embrace this technology, especially in food and confectionery.”
“It was only about five years ago that we saw a real change and greater recognition of the benefits of robots in production environments. We responded by investing in new people, skills and equipment.”
To date, CKF Systems has designed and installed about 40 robotic systems, working with companies of all sizes, from start-ups to some of the world’s leading global brands.
“There is pressure on all businesses to increase output, reduce costs and improve production flexibility to meet current demand and develop new opportunities,” continues Wheeler. “Once a customer experiences firsthand the benefits of automation there is no turning back.”
Long way to go
But the mission for the £6m turnover business has just begun. Last year, the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) showed that UK robot sales were far behind a string of countries including Taiwan, China, Germany, the US and Japan. Even Spain and Italy were in front. But Wheeler sees a change, with more UK companies ready to embrace new technologies.
“It’s not a massive change but people are starting to realise that if we are to compete with Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East we cannot just throw labour at it, it is far too expensive. The only way we can ever compete with these countries is to invest in automation and particularly robotics.”
CKF is working alongside BARA to promote the merits of automation. “In the past there have been too many mixed messages,” says Wheeler. “People see a robot as highly sophisticated, needing a phenomenal amount of time to get implemented. It isn’t the case. The systems we install invariably require less maintenance and are designed for ease of use and access.”
The CKF designed low cost robotic packing system
Designed around a standard robot cell with integrated product and case handling interfaces, the low cost robotic packing system is specifically aimed at those SME’s where there has been a reluctance to embrace such technologies. The system doesn’t require highly skilled operators, it is easily maintained and utilises a relatively small area of any shop floor. It handles medium to high speed repetitive tasks more efficiently over sustained periods than manual labour, with greater consistency and reduced wastage. A company can then make better use of resources, redeploying staff more productively whilst also reducing the likelihood of RSI and other health and safety concerns.
Chris Buxton, CEO of the British Automation & Robot Association says: “To remain competitive on the global stage it is essential that companies adopt the latest technology available but they often find that the capital cost of establishing an automated facility can be prohibitive. It is to the credit of CKF that they have risen to the challenge to help UK Manufacturers take that all important step into the world of robotics.”
“Often a company is surprised that it doesn’t take much to develop the level of engineering skills within their business to implement this technology.” “Similarly, we need to communicate more effectively the positive impacts for the workplace. Robotic systems can work in relatively confined and underutilised spaces, handling high speed repetitive tasks more efficiently over sustained periods than manual labour. A company can then make better use of resources, redeploying staff more productively whilst reducing health and safety concerns.”
Much of CKF’s business involves bespoke solutions, although the company will often advise its customers on optimising its existing kit.
“We rarely have the luxury of working from a blank canvas,” says Wheeler. “The work we recently undertook for dairy company Müller is a good example. Müller recognised that its manufacturing capability could be significantly improved through the upgrading and re-engineering of an existing re-pack line. CKF designed, installed and commissioned a fully automated solution utilising much of the current equipment and within the same floor space.”
“The new repacking line is now at least 50% more efficient, is much more versatile and able to handle double the numbers that were being achieved manually.”
Recruitment and R&D
CKF functions in rapidly evolving sector with skills requirements which match the rate of technological advance. As such, the company is continually looking to recruit the best available talent to its business. It recognises the need for staff training and development, utilising tailored programmes and courses for individuals as opposed to more formal structures. “This approach ensures that personnel keep pace with current legislation and retain an awareness of new developments,” advises Wheeler.
The company has doubled in size over the past four years recruiting numerous graduates and engineers across all the engineering disciplines; electrical, mechanical, software and automation.
“Our policy of investing in the best people has served us well over many years,” Wheeler says. “It’s just becoming more difficult to recruit from an ever reducing pool of skilled engineers. We find ourselves casting the net wider, year on year.”
Bryan Wheeler is optimistic about the rise of the machine in manufacturing. “Across UK manufacturing there is now less reluctance to link long term sustainability with robotic investment and a growing appreciation that automation does generate efficiency.”