Where to start your automation journey

Posted on 5 May 2021 by Tom Lane

Ahead of the Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Symposium on 20 May 2021 we asked some of this year’s speakers for their top tips to help manufacturers who are thinking about automating their production processes.

Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Symposium brings together Operations, Automation & Control and Manufacturing executives in an interactive format that sits delegates alongside some of the UK’s most experienced industrial robotics and automation users, and experts from world-class solutions providers.

The Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Symposium is a great opportunity to get insight from new contacts, build relationships and to see what is going on in businesses you wouldn’t get to see otherwise.

The Manufacturer caught up with one of the speakers at the symposium Kevin White, Process Control & Automation Manager, Engineering, Technical and Production Services Department at Tata Steel to find out more.

Why should manufacturers think about automating their production processes, if they haven’t thought about it before?

From a personal perspective, that’s really interesting, because having started in British Steel (as it was then) in the 80’s it was already really heavily automated. When I work with SMEs now or I work with one of the institutes, and we look into smaller companies I find it quite surprising how many still are not very heavily automated over 30 years later, and how many opportunities there are.

Now, in order to have a handful of sensors at low cost on a production line, feeding back to a cloud service and visible at your desk or on a mobile device you only need to pay a few tens of pounds a month.

Even before you fully automate, just being able to monitor equipment and processes remotely and make some optimisation decisions close to real time is a cost-effective first step. It’s becoming very much easier without needing to have full time technical expertise on staff. I think a lot of the technical capability available to SMEs is much more affordable than ever it was and pays back a lot more quickly.

“If you can get the operators doing less of the jobs they would rather not do, and to give them an opportunity to actually add more value to the business through continuous improvement or optimisation activities then it’s a win-win situation.” Kevin White, Process Control & Automation Manager, Engineering, Technical and Production Services Department at Tata Steel

Do you think one of the biggest misconceptions then from SMEs is the actual cost of automating?

To a point you are right, complete automation of an existing line is a costly undertaking and you do obviously need machines that are suitable for that level of automation and it may not be possible with equipment that is currently installed. For that reason, unless a line is having a major upgrade, full scale automation may not be the best approach.

The drivers for Automation can be very specific to individual businesses and processes, but you can certainly get some of the benefit of current automation technology without perhaps fully automating your line.

This could include more timely access to data, additional energy monitoring, asset health indication, reduced errors in data or reduced time spent compiling reports.

What are the key elements of a successful automation project?

I think there is a huge risk in misunderstanding or underestimating the impact automation has on the staff on the shop floor and the operators. If you have not got the operation staff on board, you miss out on the experience and knowledge that they have gained.

You really need to get the experience and the knowledge of the people who have been running those lines and get them working as part of a team with the automation. Whatever part you are trying to automate or if you are introducing a decision support or guidance system, without the support of the operators it is usually very difficult to get embedded success.

It is possible for engineering teams to force through changes but they rarely deliver the anticipated benefits and often aren’t sustained.


So how do you integrate your staff in the automation process?

I think one of the valuable steps is to make sure that the automation that you are introducing is trying to remove some of the mundane, the dirty or the high risk parts from the job. If you can get the operators doing less of the jobs they would rather not do, and to give them an opportunity to actually add more value to the business though continuous improvement or optimisation activities then it’s a win-win situation.

What are the pitfalls manufacturers should avoid when thinking about automation?

Quite often people are very concerned of things like supportability and interoperability, but those things are less of a challenge than they were for a number of reasons.

If you are dealing with the main manufacturers, then their support lifecycle is quite long and with a little care, investments can be supported as far as 20 years into the future.  Where IoT products are chosen, perhaps created by small or start-up companies then the likelihood of long term support is limited so its important to select the right product for the right job.

For a company considering Automation for the first time, the biggest challenge for me is the expertise level of the integrators or the automation company you are relying upon.

Whatever your industry is, the likelihood is there are some integrators that specialise in your industry, and know your processes.

You can probably try to save some money by trying to go to a more generic automation company that does all kinds of things, but unless you have got the experience in your own business of automating process lines, then you are really far better off dealing with specialists who know your business.

Unless you are prepared to build up detailed automation expertise in your own business, you would benefit from the skills and experience of a specialist automation company in your industry.

Top Tips to start your automation journey

  • Take your staff on the journey with you.
  • Use your staff’s knowledge to get insight on which part of your manufacturing process needs Improvement
  • Aim to eradicate the mundane parts of manufacturing through automation.
  • Make sure you partner with an automation company who understands your business.
  • Look at low cost solutions to start your automation journey and prove the concept.

Learn from the experts like Kevin White by booking your place at the Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Symposium 2021 now

Image supplied by shutterstock.