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MTA MQM : Manufacturing Automation Technology in the Real World:

Wednesday 29th October saw the MTA's Members’ Quarterly Meeting, the latest in a series of meetings aimed to inform, debate and discuss the key issues of the day. MTA Members filled the conference room at hosts Delcam to talk over the day’s theme - “Manufacturing Automation Technology in the Real World”.

It is said that the UK is at least 20% behind its peers in terms of automation, and while recent evidence has shown that robot sales in the UK are growing, most of this is within the automotive industry. The aim of the session was to try to understand why this was, and what could be done to remove the barriers for other sectors.

Up first was Mike Wilson of ABB Group, a leading provider of robots and automation technologies. Mike set the scene for automation in manufacturing and covered some of the preconceptions that they often find – such as an organisation is too small to benefit, or needs flexibility in product or labour. However, he pointed out that most of the preconceptions are wrong, that the benefits of automation simply outweigh any issues. With improved productivity and consistent high quality comes improved competitiveness, flexibility and improved workforce moral.

Upfront costs of automation are naturally high, but a robot operates reliably every hour and every day, and provides the opportunity for unmanned operations thereby allowing staff to be better utilised. Mike also pointed out that over the past 15 years labour cost has doubled, while at the same time, robot costs have halved.

One of the areas of concern that ABB often has to deal with is that of the workforce and skills. The natural assumption is that more automation means less staff but this is not necessarily true. A report by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) found 2 to 3 million jobs had been created in manufacturing directly from robotics – that is 2 to 3 jobs per robot in use today. The report also predicts up to 1 million new jobs being created in the next five years – the key to UK manufacturing is to ensure that a large part of these jobs are here in the UK.

Mike concluded with outlining his three pillars for successfully implementing automation – product and process innovation, effective organisation (lean engineering) and capital investment. When opened to the floor for a quick debate, 50% of attendees agreed that capital investment was the most important.

The second presentation was from Nick Statham and Seppo Lehtonen from Fastems. Fastems manufactures and supplies flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) and robot cells, so are also at the forefront of UK automation.

Nick began by speculating that part of the cause of today's lower levels of automation began in the 1980's with Thatcher’s revolution of UK manufacturing. While most other EU countries were investing in, and supporting manufacturing, the UK was being left to fend for itself, engineering was being consigned to a second rate career options. The 80's also saw the beginning of the demise in apprenticeships, and the current skills shortage the industry is facing.

Reiterating the point about workforce issues, Nick also pointed out that the Unions remain anti-automation and they naturally assume that it leads to job loses.

However, Seppo was able to point out the numerous benefits to FMS, including maximising output and improving productivity – Fastems evidence shows that stand alone machines can run for 800 – 4000 hours. FMS runs for 6000 – 8000 hours and can increase efficiency so that one machine tool produces the same as 2.5 standalone machines.

The next discussion point saw 57% of the audience agreeing with the statement “The UK is a low wage economy and, therefore does not prioritise wide spread automation”

The third and final presentation was from Paul Adams of R.E. Thomson and company, a manufacturer of high quality precision machining who has fully automated and is witnessing the benefits.

“Sweat your assets, not your people”

Paul explained that R.E. Thomson started automating in 2008 and hasn’t looked back. Their turnover has doubled twice since then and they no longer need to store spare parts or stock as they can build to order.

While initially there were fears around de-skilling of the workforce they have actually seen an up skilling. They currently have roughly the same number of employees as before automation, but three times the turnover and increased profitability. In addition, they have calculated that the return on investment is now 2-3 years, whereas standalone machines were taking up to five years.

Following the final presentation, the audience broke up into groups to discuss the issues facing SME engineering manufacturers, and how they can be motivated to invest in automation. A wide ranging debate followed and settled across some key themes. One was around levelling the playing field with the support and incentives available to our EU cousins – for instance tax incentives in Germany are double of those in the UK, and there are far too many hoops to jump through and barriers facing UK organisations accessing funding.

However, the key theme discussed was around education. Educating the staff on the positive impact of automation. Educating senior managers and organisation decision makers on the financial and productivity implications and that change is a positive creative. Also important is educating civil servants, politicians, banks and bank managers that more investment and incentives are required to get the UK fully automated.

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