Nick Peters reports on an inspiring visit to Sheffield’s Factory 2050.
The Factory 2050 project at AMRC should make any visitor’s pulse beat a little faster. The research projects going on here, producing real-world answers to today’s manufacturing problems, are fascinating and engrossing.
I was escorted from one to the next by a researcher whose infectious enthusiasm lent extra glow to the experience. He showed me projects that included teaching a robot how to linish builders’ line pins.
Not what you might call advanced manufacturing, but the Sheffield hand tool company Footprint needs help. It makes its line pins using a drop forge. Workers then polish and sharpen them on a linishing machine.
Footprint’s problem: it can’t replace the ageing employees who have acquired the necessary linishing skills over decades; it’s just not a job young people are queueing up to apply for. So, AMRC Factory 2050 is programming a robot to acquire the knowledge, the ‘eye’, and the skills to do the job in future.
It’s harder than you might think, but AMRC is confident it can be done.
Industry 4.0 for all
My guide and I turned a corner to see two very old, quite battered machine tools that would not have looked out of place in a 1960s machine shop. “What the…?” I asked, my disbelief obvious. “A Bridgeport milling machine and an old Colchester lathe,” he replied with a smile.
It was like finding a Model T Ford in a supercar showroom. These relics from decades gone by were occupying hallowed space next door to a gigantic KUKA Titan, the biggest robot in the UK (indeed, the only Titan in the UK).
On a site dedicated to the future were two (admittedly rather lovely) blasts from the past. And they were there for a very good reason, as I discovered.
Accompanying me on the tour was Paul Haimes from PTC, the Internet of Things (IoT) platform company that has joined forces with Deloitte to create the Connected Factory, an Industry 4.0 research project within Factory 2050, with PTC’s Thingworx software at its core.
“You can’t see them,” he said, “but those old machines are packed with tiny sensors communicating data in just the same way as any new machinery on the market would do.”
In other words, an IoT retrofit had enabled these dinosaurs to operate in an Industry 4.0 world. Given that it took just £500 to ‘sensor-up’ the Bridgeport and £1,000 for the Colchester, the import of this is obvious.
The technology of Industry 4.0 is within the grasp of absolutely everyone in UK manufacturing.
“This does not need to be expensive,” Haimes told me. “You can now make it possible for an old machine to deliver predictive analytics via your MES [manufacturing execution system], or to connect with your supply chain via your ERP, delivering real-time information to whoever needs it.”
SME readers take note.
Spirit of cooperation
PTC’s investment in the Connected Factory project, alongside Deloitte illustrates, as if illustration were needed these days, just why it is so important even for companies who are technically in competition to work together.
Deloitte could easily be pitching elsewhere for the same clients as PTC, using a competitor’s platform.
Indeed, PTC’s partner network includes companies like HPE, also a direct competitor. But that doesn’t stop them working together where there is mutual advantage and trust. “No single company has every single answer,” Haimes said.
We moved onto a Factory 2050 project that demonstrates how a fully-integrated IoT/MES work process, using AR and video, can revolutionise working practices.
It shows an aircraft fuselage being worked on by an AR-equipped technician who is guided every step of the way electronically, without having to resort to the paper-based manual systems of old.
He can ‘see’ the finished product through a digital twin superimposed on the structure and he can play an instruction video should he need advice.
The project is being run on behalf of Spirit AeroSystems of Scotland (part of the old BAE Systems Aerostructures Division at Prestwick), and Thingworx is driving it.
“PTC is able to work with any and all systems out there,” Haimes explained, “because we bought Kepware, the largest repository of connectivity solutions in the business. It means we can make a variety of systems talk to each other, which once again demonstrates that for every company there is a solution.”
The brilliant young researcher showing me round was Diego Aranda from Spain. He interviewed for his job at AMRC at the same time as he interviewed for a very large, global investment bank.
Despite being offered three times the pay by the bank, he took the offer from AMRC because he loves engineering so much (“The toys are great!” he told me.)
But financial services are luring away large numbers of graduate engineers that the sector badly needs. It’s a problem that happily, in the case of this young man, was resolved by the sheer joy of working to improve the future of UK manufacturing.
Industry needs to find a way of making sure young graduates like him find it increasingly attractive to apply their knowledge to manufacturing, rather than financial services.
It can’t compete in cash terms, but it may be possible to demonstrate that in terms of job satisfaction – and career longevity, considering the notorious record of burn-outs in the financial sector – manufacturing offers so much more.