Machine tools are the cornerstone of the UK manufacturing industry, used directly and indirectly in every sector from aerospace to oil & gas. Victoria Fitzgerald caught up with Group Product Manager Europe at Yamazaki Mazak, Alan Mucklow, to get his take on the sector’s health.
April witnessed the biennial machine tool extravaganza that is MACH, where more than 600 firms united to showcase the cream of the machine tool industry.
I managed to catch up with Alan Mucklow at the tail-end of the exhibition, and we stole a moment to sit down and discuss the machine tool sector’s past, present and future.
Like so many successful individuals in manufacturing, Mucklow began his career as an apprentice. “I left school and went straight into a technical engineering apprenticeship at The Hymatic Engineering Company,” he said.
This meant Mucklow’s focus was intially in the aerospace and defence sectors, and from there, he took on a more business orientated role at Cincinnati Machine.
In 2009, Mucklow transitioned into the machine tool sector, first taking a role at MAG IAS GmbH and then in 2010 becoming group manager at Yamazaki Mazak, where after almost two years, he progressed to group product manager Europe.
According to the MTA, the machine tool sector employs 9,500 people across manufacturing and distribution. Although business opportunities are on the increase, the much documented skills gap combined with an ageing workforce threatens to hinder the potential growth of the industry as a whole.
As a former apprentice, Mucklow is extremely conscious of the direct correlation between the strength – or otherwise – of the skills pipeline and the sector’s progression.
“The skills shortage is an issue and we are playing our part in developing apprenticeship programmes,” he said.
“I have a personal interest, having come through an apprenticeship scheme. It is fundamental to get the right skills into the industry at the earliest possible opportunity.
“We also have to convince young people that manufacturing is an industry which is of great benefit to the economy and to their own personal development. Training is vital to our long term success as an organisation and as a country.”
As much as the skills gap gives Mucklow cause for concern, the quality of the new technology that is driving sector growth encourages him.
“MACH has shown a real increase in the level of automation companies are now employing to improve productivity, as well as putting the people and the skills into the areas where they can really add value.”
Mucklow suggested that developing skills is a two-pronged attack, which includes employing the right training, but also maximising the utilisation of the skills base.
“There will be different skills required compared to when I started. The technology has moved on dramatically in terms of CNC technnology, performance of products, hybrid manufacturing, additive manufacturing, so the whole skill set needs to change in focus.
“It is important to have those fundamental engineering foundations upon which to build that knowledge.”
This advancement in machine tool technology is the perfect segue into how the sector is changing. Mucklow explained that it’s not just the acceleration of the use of advanced technology driving change, but the degree to which separate technologies are beginning to work together.
“One trend that is really going to accelerate over the next ten years is the accessibility of data through devices, which analyse and manage your assets remotely, whether that is machine sensors or any form of processing equipment.”
“To give you an example, imagine being able to understand when a product is going to have a potential down time, and eliminating it before it actually happens. In the past, this would spell a reduction in productivity and increase inefficiency. Now, that data can be used to enhance a manufacturer’s productivity and hopefully feed through into its profitability and ability to grow.”
He also cited automation and intelligent automation as key drivers of change in the industry. He underscored that it will become, “an aide to manufacturing, as opposed to simply a vehicle to load and unload”.
In particular, Mucklow said that the real value to be derived from advances in technology comes from recognising the right moment to implement them.
“For example, in hybrid manufacturing, you’ve got the ability to combine both subtractive and additive, which is a potential benefit. But what has to happen there, is an understanding at a foundation level of design, how to design products to maximise the benefit.
“There’s no point just taking an existing part and changing the process just because you are using additive, it’s got to be designed with that process in mind, to really achieve what we all believe will be a significant benefit.
“That’s not just the complex part, which we can now generate, but the cost reduction that can be achieved, which then feeds through into other industries. In addition, there’s a whole area of technology driving the design side, which I think is a challenge and that links back to training as well.”
From here, the conversation moved to Mucklow’s personal journey through the world of manufacturing and into machine tools.
From a budding engineering apprentice starting out at the end of the 80s, Mucklow has progressed through the ranks, a route that he fervently believes should be promoted more widely in the public domain.
When asked about what he was most proud of, Mucklow referred to the firm’s hybrid offerings. “The most recent personal area of pride is the introduction of the hybrid products, particularly, taking that next step in the development of multi-tasking products and pushing the boundaries of existing technology to open up the field for a different way of thinking.
“I’m proud that we were able to bring that technology to market. As an innovative technology, what is clear is that for many who are working in additive or hybrid, you can almost say we have come up with such a great answer that customers are now looking around for questions for it to resolve.
“I am also extremely delighted with how Yamazaki Mazak is developing the tools to enhance our ability as a company to improve our position within the market that we serve,” he added.
Surely there must be a bleaker ying to complement the positive yang of his career to date? Apparently not. When I ask Mucklow about career lows, he genuinely doesn’t have any and regards any professional slumps as simply an “opportunity to address and improve”.
With that said, he added that “Aston Villa being relegated this season” has been a particular low point for 2016. Can’t have everything I suppose.