UK's journey to automation

Engineer Live News Desk

David Hughes explains why the UK manufacturing sector must automate to compete internationally

UK manufacturing stands at a crossroads. On the one hand it can embrace industry 4.0 and the multiple benefits that digitalisation and automation offer in terms of improved productivity, unprecedented visualisation of the production chain, predictive as opposed to reactive maintenance, reduced downtime and environmental footprint, and remote working. On the other, some UK manufacturers can return to business as normal, and risk losing competitive advantage to other nations such as China, Germany and France, which recognise the importance of technological innovation in an increasingly interconnected, globalised business world.

Often a common, albeit wrong assumption, is that these countries work harder than the UK manufacturing base: in reality, they just automate more which makes them more productive and efficient.

When it comes to the uptake of automation in the manufacturing sector, the UK is well below the global average. If we take the automotive sector out of this equation it falls even further. Interestingly, many automotive companies in the UK acknowledge that if they hadn’t invested significantly in automation and robotics 15 years ago, they would not be manufacturing in the UK now. So, what does this mean for the rest of the sector?

A question of culture

It all comes down to culture. Typically, when manufacturers install a new asset, traditionally they look at payback in terms of 1–2 years, but this narrow focus on purchase cost comes at the expense of a more holistic view, where initial capital expenditure (CAPEX) is measured against factors such as productivity and equipment downtime. Operational expenditure (OPEX) seldom gets the focus it deserves.

It would be much better to design and install a digital and automation platform so that you can predict when an asset was going to fail, and proactively address that issue during a planned outage process? Regrettably, the cost of having key assets out of use, rarely gets factored in when changes are made.

This approach was adopted recently by a multinational company that wanted to spend €100m on a new production line. By working with ABB to develop a predictive automation process that ultimately cost around £5,000, productivity was increased, and the initial investment was not required. 

That willingness to try something different is the difference between the culture of other parts of Europe and here in the UK. One of the biggest barriers to automation and digitalisation is fear of the unknown and therefore any strategy to encourage this approach should not just be about technology. It must embrace the cultural change needed - it’s about technology, people, processes and ultimately changing business culture. If we do not start to make changes in our approach, and continue to repeat historical manufacturing methods, the UK manufacturing sector faces being left behind on the international stage.

Smart solutions

One of the solutions aimed at combatting this need for change and to help bring UK companies on par is the Made Smarter Commission, a coalition of leaders and innovators in automation technology, including ABB, academia, and government bodies such as Catapult and the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). 

With a focus on upskilling and helping business adopt technology across their entire value chains, the consortium worked on a recent pilot project in the north-west of England, successfully upskilled many SMEs in the region. During this project, ABB and the Made Smarter team supported local business leaders redefine their strategy and to embrace digitalisation and automation. 

Digitalisation is a journey, and the starting point is a carefully planned digital roadmap. Although it is important that companies have a big vision, it is also important to start small and run an agile organisation to drive the development and execution of digital solutions.

Remote possibilities

This year alone has shown why digitalisation and automation has such crucial role to play for the manufacturing sector. Enabling remote working and asset monitoring to enable operators can maintain critical infrastructure, keep production running and ensure worker safety during the ongoing health pandemic has been essential. 

ABB has worked hard to support customers during this period, regardless of their automaton status – helping personnel to monitor the integrity of plant assets – everything from power and distribution transformers, medium and low-voltage switchgear, and electric motors – from a home environment or other remote locations using PCs or tablets. 

Remote working and conditional monitoring saw a 50% uptake of interest this year, due to the need for social distancing and the furloughing of staff. At the same time there was an increase in productivity in some industries such as food and beverage, pharmaceuticals and the water industry. Tracking, monitoring and a pro-active approach to any potential plant breakdowns is a priority.

ABB has also ensured that HSE isn’t neglected, by carrying out a number of virtual factory acceptance tests in a controlled online environment, negating the need for engineers to fly abroad during lockdown, and reducing its own carbon footprint.

How UK companies embrace industry 4.0 innovations in digitalisation and automation will go a long way to determining how effectively they are able to compete on the global stage, which will be increasingly important as we charter unknown and new territory in 2021. UK manufacturers and OEMS must be able to demonstrate that they are as productive and forward-thinking as possible.

The journey towards automation is a long one, but it is one that UK manufacturing – in partnership with the government, industry, and technology leaders – must take.

David Hughes is Managing Director ABB in the UK 

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