Disruption breeds innovation

Posted on 15 Oct 2020 by Tom Lane

Tom Lane caught up with Tony Hague (PP Control & Automation) and Tony Dale (Mills CNC) to get their experiences of operating during the pandemic and the importance of UK manufacturing technologies sector in driving innovation.

“COVID has actually accelerated innovation in certain sectors. We are working on three or four projects at the moment that I can’t go into unfortunately, but it’s basically a new technology that has developed and accelerated dramatically in weeks that would normally have probably taken years because of the impact of COVID,” Tony Hague muses.

Manufacturers the world over always have a multitude of issues to contend with at any one time. Throw a global pandemic into the mix and businesses have to react and adapt to the challenging landscape ahead. It seems that disruptive times provide a chance to innovate and become more productive, and here we focus on two such companies.

Tony Hague 1
Tony Hague – CEO at PP Control & Automation

A case in point

PP Control & Automation is one of the largest independent suppliers in Europe of control and automation solutions to machinery builders worldwide, employing more than 200 staff at its manufacturing site in Walsall.

Mills CNC, based in Leamington Spa, is highly regarded in the machine tool market and across many sectors including aerospace and defence, power generation, motorsport, oil and gas, medical, automotive and general precision component manufacture.

When looking at Britain’s manufacturing landscape, it is important not to forget its manufacturing technology providers. Often working quietly in the background of any major engineering project, companies like PP Control & Automation and Mills CNC are at the beginning of the supply chain, providing the necessary equipment and technical support to ensure Britain’s makers keep producing the goods.

David Fox guided PP Control & Automation for almost 40 years. Image: PP C&A

If the order books of manufacturing technology suppliers are slowing it is a fair indication of a softening of the entire market, a sentiment Tony Dale agrees with; “I think it’s a good indication, you’re right. Where we are seeing success at the moment is in improving efficiencies. It doesn’t matter what you make, you’ve got to improve your efficiencies so that you can be leaner and supply a better product than your competitor.”

Dale continues; “Normally, we’re used to people investing to buy extra capacity because they’re busy. What we are finding now is businesses trying to improve efficiencies. So, we launched an automation division over a year ago and are just in the process of launching a dedicated automation turnkey showroom. We’ve developed our own automation product that is going well.”

This article first appeared in the October issue of The Manufacturer.

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Supply chain added value

Tony Dale - Mills CNC
Tony Dale,
Technical Director at Mills CNC

This is a tale you will find a lot within the UK manufacturing technology sector. British engineers developing their own automation systems, adding value to the equipment they sell, improving efficiencies of their customers and most importantly providing the necessary technical support.

It is also about changing the thinking behind equipment acquisitions within the UK supply chain, from an unnecessary expense to a long-term investment in quality products and technical support. “We’ve got to move away from always chasing the lowest price to looking at total cost of acquisition and at the value that UK collaboration brings and to create wealth in the UK,” says Hague . “We can talk about theproductivity puzzle, but I don’t know why we use the word ‘puzzle’ because we know what the answer is and we’re not doing it.”

He passionately continues: “We have got to invest in automation, the problem is when you mention automation and Industry 4.0 people always think about robots whizzing around factories; that is just one end of the spectrum. I’m just talking about general automation that can mean a lot of different things to different companies. In our small companies, we have to make it relevant to what automation is.”

Mills CNC

Dale comments: “If you stop investing, if you stop moving forward as a business, you stand still; as soon as you stand still, you stagnate. You are whatever the market is in one way, shape or form, you’ve got to find ways to innovate and find new business. And that is what we have done throughout the pandemic and, hopefully, will see us through to bigger and better things.”

While much of the economy shut down during lockdown, Britain’s manufacturing technology providers diligently went about their business doing what they do best – innovating.

Dale provides the last word on why the manufacturing technologies sector is so vitally important; “The fact that the majority of people don’t know what a CNC machine tool is seems criminal. Whether it is an aircraft, the car you drive, the bike you cycle to work, the hip joint you have put in, everything touches a CNC machine at some point. We have to raise the awareness of manufacturing, the sector in general, what it adds to the economy and what it actually does so people know what these things are.”

That is exactly what we plan to do over the coming months. The Manufacturer will be delving into the UK’s manufacturing technologies sector and uncovering the stories behind the equipment shaping the world around us.

* Please get in touch with Deputy Editor, Tom Lane, at [email protected] if you would like to share your story