UK automation battles to catch up

Posted on 7 Mar 2011 by The Manufacturer

British companies outside the automotive sector lag way behind European competitors in automation investment. Industry experts identify current trends in automation and suggest the way forward, reports Brian Davis.

Automation and industrial robots in particular can drive down costs of manufacturing, improve quality and repeatability, reduce waste and optimise energy use. However, UK companies have been far slower to adopt robots than their European competitors. According to a recent International Federation of Robotics (IFR) report, UK firms have been extremely bland regarding automation investment. But initiatives are underway to stimulate growth.

UK versus Europe
Despite our reputation for product and process innovation, UK firms have been reluctant to invest in automation. The UK’s density of robots per 10,000 employees in the non-automotive sectors is merely 25, compared to 127 in Germany, 114 in Sweden, 97 in Italy, 45 in Spain and 38 in France.

Mike Wilson, President of the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) and director of the Automation Advisory Service, blames a number of factors for the shortfall. “There is a lack of awareness across many sectors. UK firms also expect far shorter payback than European competitors, and there is often lack of sufficient expertise to specify and implement new automation systems.” Help is on the way. Following recommendations made in a study of ‘Applications of Automation in UK Manufacturing,’ the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is introducing a £600,000, twoyear programme to raise awareness of automation benefits with a series of 10-regional road shows which starts in March.

Mr Wilson emphasises the importance of identifying where automation may solve problems or improve efficiency. “Deploying a lean initiative is a good start. This will help identify typical touch points where there are excessive handling, scrap, rework or quality issues. Automation can replace operations that are unpleasant, arduous or repetitive. However, the key to automation is not simply to reduce labour costs but to improve consistency and relocate people to where they can add value.”

Robots in the UK: auto dominates

Some sectors are starting to get the message.

According to the latest figures from BARA, UK robot sales rose 65% in 2010 compared with 2009, reversing a year-on-year decline since 2005. Although the proportion of robot sales in the automotive sector fell from 48% of total sales in 2006 to 38% in 2010, those in the food and drink industry climbed 228% over this period, healthcare and medical rose 263% and aerospace rose 644%.

Of the 796 robots sold in the UK last year, 275 were sold in the automotive sector and subsidiaries, 105 in food and drink, 84 in pharmaceuticals/ healthcare and 58 in aerospace.

Changing perceptions

Brian Holliday, divisional director for Industry Automation, Siemens UK, reckons UK firms have to change their perception. “British companies take a different view to capital spend on automation to European competitors. UK firms often look to minimise cost and seek to shoehorn automation into a system without understanding how the technology can be deployed. Furthermore, engineers have difficulty convincing the board of the need for investment, possibly due to an image problem.” Nevertheless, technology is a driver for profit and change. “We are seeing increasing use of IT for supervisory control and improved data acquisition,” adds Mr Holliday. “Manufacturing execution systems (MES) can be used to capture process procedures automatically offering better consistency in decision making.” Siemens’ Simatic MES, for example, is an open system which sits comfortably with a variety of automation systems to give an overview of management and shop floor functions.

Siemens has introduced a new integrated software environment called the Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) Portal to enable users to develop and commission automation systems quickly and cost effectively. “The traditional engineering environment involved bolting together bespoke elements to create an automation system,” explains Holliday. “Whereas the new portal offers a software environment to configure, parametise, programme and commission automation and drive products within a totally integrated automation system.” The new portal is designed to configure, programme and commission automation and drive products including Simatic Step 7 V11 automation software for Simatic controllers and Simatic Win CCV11 for Simatic HMI (human machine interface) and process visualisation applications.

Holliday sees a growing trend for integrated automation control systems that offer long-term lifecycle asset knowledge, rather than using proprietary systems that cause extensive and time-consuming legacy issues, with increasing barriers to operational efficiency, cost effectiveness and capex value.

Biomechatronics innovation

Automation supplier Festo is involved in the Grail Robot project, which involves the Centre for Food Robotics and Automation in Doncaster, BARA and other industrial partners. The Grail Project focuses on biomechatronics, developing new robotics that mimic natural biological systems.

Festo has developed a very lightweight handling system called the Bionic Tripod, where the motors and actuators remain stationary while the moving parts have very low mass and are safe for humans to work beside, unlike normal closely guarded robot cells. The way the moving arm is linked together resembles a fish tail or ray wing, connected by a series of webs for movement.

Trials are underway at several research institutes, including the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany and at industrial clients.

The latest bionic concept is based on an elephant’s trunk. The biomechatronic arm is made up of a series of rapid-manufactured bellows which are produced as a large integrated trunk to handle soft food products with a lightweight polymer gripper, with flexible fingers to handle soft fruits and irregular shapes.

Industrial ethernet impact

Several vendors pinpoint the growing impact of the ethernet and wireless technologies in the industrial environment.

Steve Sands, production and marketing manager at pneumatic and electrical automation supplier Festo, maintains that: “Some companies are comfortable using industrial ethernet while others see is as a hurdle, as it’s a different approach to using fieldbus or traditional hardwiring of automation.” Here again, UK firms are dragging their feet, but Mr Sands insists that “industrial ethernet offers more universal control from the enterprise level to the shop floor or actuator sensors.” Manufacturers are also seeking easier specification, with flexibility the key driver. “There is significant growth in demand for complete assembled solutions, particularly in the food, beverage and packaging sectors,” says Sands. “Flexible production calls for mixed discipline mechatronics.” This is mixing electroservo systems with low cost pneumatics to achieve high output and high flexibility, typically for pick and place, conveying and handling applications.

Rockwell Automation is also seeing a lot of interest in plant optimisation using MES software tools, like FactoryTalk Historian and FactoryTalk Vantage Point, to provide a global visualisation tool that brings together multiple sources of data across the manufacturing enterprise.

Security in process systems

Security is a big issue. There is concern about security infringements of industrial systems, in the light of the Stuxnet and Aurora malware incidents in the process industries sector. Mike Loughran, solutions architect at Rockwell Automation suggests that “most companies are well equipped to address external threats to network infrastructure, but internal threats and attacks are more common.” Historically, industrial networks were secure by nature because they used the robust ControlNet, Modbus or Profibus protocols. However, the advent of the industrial ethernet has increased vulnerability.

Loughran recommends a layered approach with ‘Defence in Depth’ as no single-size-fits -all. This means implementing physical and non-physical security measures. He suggests locking down systems using managed ethernet switches and firewalls with intrusion detection and prevention systems and computer/controller hardening, as well as non-physical approaches, including password protection, patch management and staff training for security awareness, with regular background checks on contractors and internal staff. Rockwell Automation offers specialist industrial networking security teams who can audit a firm’s industrial automation network for areas of vulnerability.


Innovation is also big in robotics. Rockwell’s Loughran sees a lot more demand for two and three-axis robots, and replacement of hydraulic and pneumatics with electrical rod actuators. “This boosts productivity, while reducing maintenance costs and enabling the operator to build new applications into the overall automation system.

Customers want automation packages that cover multiple areas of plant. The aim is to cut down operator training and maintenance, to reduce spare holdings and to give greater standardisation.” Traditionally automation and robotics investment has been led by the automotive sector, but in the last five years there has been significant growth in food and drink and aerospace. Nigel Platt, UK sales manager for ABB Robotics says that food and drink companies favour the flexpicker style of robot.

The pharmaceutical sector is focused on robots for primary and secondary packaging, investing in flexpickers and small six-axis machines, while aerospace companies favour large six-axis machines for machine tending and materials handling. The UK robot market grew 57% last year, mainly driven by the automotive sector which mostly deploys six-axis robots for body-in-white.

Mr Platt recognises that big users have deployed fully networked systems, while SMEs tend to operate standalone cells. However, technologies such as ‘remote service’ – a web-based system for predictive maintenance and online production support – are becoming more popular. For example, if a robot located in Scunthorpe runs hot, ABB head office can spot and predict issues remotely before production problems occur. Remote service technology is now included in most new ABB robot installations.

Generally, robots have become faster and more agile. ABB’s new IRB 2600 ID (integrated dressing) robot is designed for materials handling and machine tending applications with integrated hose and cable protection, to reduce exposure to cutting fluids, and the ability to work in narrow spaces and around complex parts. Compared with earlier models, the 15kg handling capacity robot claims to increase productivity, simplify programming and has lower operating costs, with better path following accuracy and speed performance.

And what is more, the cost/performance ratio of robots is coming down. Companies now recognise that robots offer important benefits in terms of reduced operating costs (compared with bespoke automation), improved quality and consistency, reduced material waste and increased yield. For example, chocolate maker Thorntons attributed much of its market dominance in 2010 to investing in robotic packaging systems – one line packs 900 chocolates a minute (see company profile in the December issue). If UK manufacturers are to gain ground against fierce international competition, then it is vital they invest in more automation.