Lead the competition by leading in automation

Posted on 17 Jan 2014 by Callum Bentley

Those who lead in automation will lead in the competitive battles ahead for global manufacturing says Ken Young, technology director at the Manufacturing Technology Centre and a member of TM’s Automation Advisory Board.

Manufacturing in the UK is undoubtedly experiencing a resurgence. Tough times have led to leaner operations, diversification, focus on ‘value add’ and, we are now seeing strong evidence, growing exports.

But global competition remains fierce in manufacturing – all world leading manufacturing companies are using the above strategies to find or maintain competitive advantage.

To fully optimise every competitive weapon in their arsenal, more UK manufacturers need to consider another approach too – automation.

Interested in the automation?

Make sure you attend the Automate UK Conference (part of The Future Factory Series) in London on February 25. An essential one day conference to attend if you are thinking about or already automating your factory. The UK is lagging behind the world in the race to automate. Find out how you can close the gap to improve your processes, cut costs and become more globally competitive.

Too often, British manufacturers have overlooked this option, and the UK is falling ever further behind the rest of the developed world in its adoption of automation technology.

Reluctance to invest in the past has often come down to a feeling than the solutions on offer are; not right for the manufacturing processes (often low volume and niche in the UK), too expensive, or will cause labour disputes. Other reasons often quoted for a lack of interest in investing in automation include:

  • Stories of bad experiences from early adopters
  • Lack of automation skills in the business
  • Failures in the market of key systems integrators
  • Low manufacturing confidence leading to postponed investment plans
  • Inconsistent Government industrial policy obstructing a clear vision for the future of manufacturing in the UK

All of these reasons or perceptions may have been true at one time, but the rate of technological advance means that there is now a far broader scope of increasingly flexible and cost effective automation options available to manufactures – and case studies show that redeployment of staff can actually lead to more jobs in and around the manufacturing sector.

Some key reasons to adopt automation technologies in a manufacturing business

Automating a process drives a deeper understanding of it and that allows a company to get more from it than previously possible. This can manifest in tighter control of tolerances, costs or simply an ability to turn the process on and off as demand fluctuates without massive cost or disruption.

  1. The manufacturing environment is very different now and recruitment and retention of skilled staff aren’t easy. While manufacturing was shrinking there were always plenty of people looking for jobs, now there are very few and the price of employing them is rising.
  2. Automation can greatly enhance the experience of working in manufacturing and help to attract and retain top quality employees by taking away the hard, dirty and repetitive aspects of the work. If used appropriately it releases the workforce to concentrate on improvement activities and developments for the future.

Furthermore, it is now clear that there has been a massive change in the way manufacturing is viewed by political and financial leaders. Government has finally recognised the importance of the manufacturing sector and is supporting it and many sectors are seeing larger order books than ever before, a boost which is feeding down into the supply chain and giving confidence to investors and manufacturers alike to buy new technologies, recruit appropriate staff and train existing employees.

Automation can bring competitive advent by reducing cost and improving consistent quality. But it can also act as a strategic tool to drive the business, giving it a sustainable leadership position.

While this can be difficult to display on a spreadsheet, it needs to be understood at board level that strategic automation investments are about long term competitiveness.

Automation can change the nature and quality of jobs in manufacturing.


A word of warning

Automation should not be regarded as the cure-all for a manufacturing firm’s problems. It is a tool to help drive technology, skills and appropriate behaviours into a business.  It is hard to do properly but if best practice is applied the end results makes it worthwhile.

To avoid disappointment in an automation investment:

  1. Establish some automation capability within the business by selecting a few capable staff and getting them to work with an implementation partner to select some appropriate areas to start
  2. Build capability with small projects and ensure that your workforce is fully bought into the automation concept or strategy
  3. Gradually roll out automation into key parts of your business. Don’t go for short term payback, look for maximum long term benefit.