Event preview: Automate UK

Posted on 8 Dec 2012 by The Manufacturer

The UK instrumentation and automation sector is strong says trade body Gambica. But why is UK manufacturing not reaping the benefits that it can offer?

The UK instrumentation and automation industry is suffering a sad paradox in the UK.

The sector has recovered well from the recession, business levels are back above 2006 levels and, in some sectors, above their pre-recession 2008 levels. But a key market, UK manufacturing, is not taking full advantage of this indigenous asset, nor benefiting from the efficiencies automation technology can bring.

This situation is limiting growth prospects for both parties.

The UK automation industry

In November Gambica, the trade association for instrumentation, control, automation and laboratory technology in the UK, published its index for the UK Instrumentation and Automation industry. The index is plotted from Gambica’s own market data, most of which is submitted by its members. Gambica’s Chief Executive, Dr Graeme Philp believes it’s the most reliable market data available on this sector.

The data shows industrial automation following the economy quite quickly as it slid into recession during 2008 and then gradually climbing back, while process automation, with its longer project timescales, continued to grow for some time after the recession hit, before dipping slightly and then recovering and growing strongly.

The UK industrial automation market is broadly split into two major sectors – industrial automation, covering the discrete manufacturing industry, and process control, covering the continuous process industries.

Gambica estimates that process control represents approximately 46% of the market, industrial automation 41% and fluid power and robotics making up 11% and 2% respectively.

With doom and gloom pronouncements on the UK economy being so popular, it is perhaps not surprising that some recent confidence surveys have shown a touch of pessimism in Gambica’s industries. But with news of the UK climbing out of recession, the trade association expects this to give way to a continuation of modest but real growth for its members into 2013.

The UK manufacturing industry

Sadly, this confidence has not yet percolated into every aspect of UK manufacturing and Gambica reports continued under-investment from this segment. This contrasts starkly with the situation in other countries, notably Germany and China where investment in machines and automation has held up through the global financial crisis.

“It’s not the larger manufacturing companies where this failure to invest is most pronounced”, said Gambica’s Chief Executive, Dr Graeme Philp. “Rather it is in the manufacturing heartland of middle-sized and smaller companies”.

Dr Philp goes on to say that this trend is making a past strength of UK manufacturing – technological maturity – become its weakness.

“UK companies are very good at ‘make do and mend’ and maybe the benefits of further automating the manufacturing process seem less compelling than leaving the money in the bank, particularly in the current economic climate,” says Dr Philip. “However, our competitors are making those investments and reaping the benefits of more efficient production, higher energy efficiency and lower emissions. UK companies risk being left behind”.

Gambica, being part of a network of European Trade Associations, is able to compare industrial automation investment across other European countries. It probably won’t surprise you that German industry invests over 5 times more in automation than we do in the UK. Italy and France also both invest between 3 to 4 times more than the UK.

Stopping the slide

The UK government is alert to the problem and have set up a number of initiatives, one of which, Automating Manufacturing, is designed to take the risk out of investigating the benefits of manufacturing with an initial consultancy paid for by the government.

Larger automation companies have set up their own equivalents of these schemes, often with money being lent to the end-user on a contingent basis with payment being linked to the delivery of efficiency improvements. “These schemes have made a difference”, said Dr Philp. “But it has been surprisingly difficult to get manufacturing companies to take them up”.

There is clearly inertia in the system – one of the more difficult control problems to overcome, as any automation engineer will tell you.