Manufacturing technologies: Taking up tech

Posted on 18 Jun 2012

Tom Moore examines why the UK lags so far behind other countries in the race to automate.

Cries for the UK to increase the level of robotics and automation within the manufacturing sector reverberate among the technologically intrepid. But are they being heard? It’s an old call to arms. Is anyone listening?

There has been a tepid approach to implementing robotics in the UK that places the country well behind Germany, Italy and France. The danger is that these economic rivals, competing to make and sell products to the same customers, have gained a competitive advantage over the UK.

Outdated worldviews

And the problem extends much farther afield than Europe. It is an exercise in repetition to say that the UK should embrace robotics to lower labour costs and increase productivity so that it can compete against the new manufacturing power houses in the East and elsewhere.

Furthermore, that argument is now redundant. China is implementing robotics and automation faster than anyone else. Although wages have risen by 22% across China over the past two years, Chris Buxton, CEO at British Automation and Robots Association (BARA), says that this is not the only driver behind China’s rapid automation of manufacturing.

Mr Buxton explains that there is a clearly expressed Chinese strategy to standardise processes and improve quality. China is following the same path that Japan took in the 1980s. It is shedding the shoddy reputation that stereotypically accompanies products embossed with Made in China and is taking aim on high value, advanced sectors such as aerospace.

Buxton warns that the UK risks playing catch up, or simply being sidelined, unless something changes soon. Cash flow problems, he says, are a major barrier to effecting this change. Especially for the UK’s wealth of small companies – the same segment which represents Britain’s only realistic hope for significant economic growth.

“We still need to close the gap with our rivals in the rest of Europe if we are to realise our growth potential” – Terry Jones, Director, FDF

A window of opportunity

The fact is that, for many the money just isn’t available to invest in the automation of processes And there is also a lingering perception that automation is only for big companies.

It is this thinking that the Government is trying to eradicate with a £600,000 pot to fund free site assessments. These are designed to identify realistic opportunities to improve production operations by using automation.

The uptake of this offering has been strong, with 171 firms making use of the review so far, with the option to receive 50% off of a further stage that looks at what machines would be best suited to the company’s needs.

However, Grant Collier of the Processing & Packaging Machinery Association (PPMA) has warned that “funding is due to be exhausted by October this year despite an end date of March 2013 because demand has outstripped expectation.”

A lack of knowledge and skills, plus an aversion to risk, have been cited as the primary causes of the technological gap between the UK and its European counterparts. But use of the government review has proven that interest and appetite for automation do exist. Buxton says that “there is a little bit of parochialism going on here,” so technical support is needed to accelerate understanding and use of automation.

It is no coincidence that a resurgent automotive sector and manufacturing heavyweights in the UK’s pharmaceutical and food and drink sectors have the highest levels of automation within industry.

A 68% year-on-year increase in the sale of robots during 2011 was driven by dramatic growth in the automotive and automotive components sectors with growth of 235% and 176% in each. It is a virtuous cycle, the more robots can aid the sector to cut costs, the more sales companies can achieve and the more money they have to invest in further automation.

Rockwell has launched a new midrange that shrinks technology down into more compact and cheaper devices

Speaking at Automation University, an event hosted by Rockwell Automation, Buxton gave a rousing account of the benefits. “Robots are faster and more reliable than humans, plus they don’t carry union cards,” he said. “There is not a lower quality product on a Monday morning or a Friday afternoon. Adopting robotics leads to better operational ability and utilisation of space.”

Next generation automation

Buxton asserts that programming improvements have also added the flexibility that robotics previously lacked, leading to quicker changeover times and higher yields. Bringing this improved capability to the masses, Rockwell Automation recently launched a new midrange portfolio to help machine builders design better-performing machines for medium-sized companies.

The range is scalable with integrated control for every size of machine and represents a flow-down of technology that is available at cheaper prices. Where drives and controls for mid-sized operations have lacked the ability to capture and record data in the past, automation firms such as Rockwell have worked on incorporating this to bring increased control to industrial processes to a wider audience.

For example, the company’s new PowerFlex range of AC drives are more compact to optimise space in smaller factories and feature sensorless vector control to meet low speed torque demands, helping to improve application performance. In a world where robots increasingly talk to each other, there are now higher levels of integration between motion controls and drives over EtherNet/IP.

Chip-maker McCain Foods recently installed £6.5m worth of robotics and automation equipment to boost capacity as it had to import chips despite having six manufacturing sites in the UK. Paul Derbyshire, electrical, control and automation engineer at the firm explained that the adoption of Integrated Architecture means that it has developed a standard set of engineering objects to use across all its applications.

This improves the flow of data between the production floor and the enterprise system, uptime and enables quicker production changes to be made to meet market demands.

Director at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), Terry Jones, comments that “Though UK food and drink manufacturers are already major users of robot applications – we still need to close the gap with our rivals in the rest of Europe if we are to realise our growth potential.”

Surprisingly, a drop in sales to both the food and drink and pharmaceutical sectors has been reported. “Such technology may not be right for every company, but it is clearly an important area to promote as we look to boost the competitiveness of UK manufacturing,” says Jones. “We are pleased to be working with BARA to help smaller food and drink companies explore new ways of improving processes and increasing efficiency.”

Buxton admits that the link between job losses and robotics is still a contentious issue, but asserts that efficiencies gained by automating processes can create jobs in the UK. “The application of automation is good for business as a successful organisation will employ people. If you fail you make them redundant,” he says. Derbyshire adds that, at McCain Foods, “We have not lost the labour but redeployed them with new skills.”

With the cost of robotics coming down and the cost of wages going up, even manufacturers that are happy with their existing setups are will have to sit up and take notice.