Automation will work for UK manufacturers

All around the world manufacturing companies are installing record numbers of robots. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) recently announced that robot installations in 2011 increased by 38 per cent over 2010 to exceed 166,000 units, by far the highest number recorded for one year.

The most automated countries in the world, according to the IFR, are Korea, Japan and Germany. In the United States, robot shipments increased by 43 per cent, to 20,555 units, as the modernisation of their manufacturing facilities gains momentum. China, despite its low wages, reached a new peak of 22,600 units, a growth of 51 per cent.

Those companies installing automation systems, including robot and vision technologies, are reaping the benefits of improved productivity. This has been achieved by increasing utilisation of both manpower and machines, improving quality by ensuring consistent output and reduced waste and rework, quickening customer response by the use of flexible automation systems able to adapt to changing customer demands, and enhancing employee performance by the automation of hazardous, arduous or highly repetitive jobs. This has also led to reduced costs, improved competitiveness and greater profitability. This drives business growth and, subsequently, more employment.

The UK is following this trend with sales in the first half of 2012 reaching 2,000 units, higher than any previous year total. However, there are two notes of caution. By far the majority of these sales were to automotive factories and, even with these record numbers, our manufacturing is still a long way behind its overseas competitors.

There are many more companies who should be looking to use appropriate automation

We are strong at product innovation and have developed efficient manufacturing processes. However, we are poor at investment in advanced manufacturing technologies. We have too many manufacturing companies struggling with old and inefficient equipment. There is one benefit in our current position; the technologies, particularly robotics and vision, are well developed and proven, and solutions for many manufacturing problems exist and are already in operation. Therefore we do not have to lead the development of automation solutions, with the associated risk and cost. We can select appropriate solutions from proven applications.

The most significant problem within UK manufacturing lies in the lack of knowledge regarding automation, particularly what competitors are doing, as well as the benefits. There is often a perceived risk, but the result of doing nothing is certain – decreasing business due to a growing reduction in competitiveness.

The more forward-thinking UK companies have already applied automation solutions. There are many examples of successful businesses that have made automation a cornerstone of their manufacturing strategies. These range from very small companies producing low-cost items, such as fridge magnets, to larger companies making high-quality, electrical connectors. Automation is in use across all sectors from construction materials through to food. However, there are many more companies who should be looking to use appropriate automation.

There are still challenges in applying even proven automation solutions. There is a lack of expertise within our businesses to conceive and specify what is required. We also apply short payback criteria which can often kill projects. With the right justification, taking account of all the benefits and potential savings, these projects could go ahead. The savings come from many sources – increased yield, reduced waste, reduced work in progress, improved energy utilisation, reduced floor space and reduced employee turnover. The cost of automation is also decreasing whereas most other costs continue to rise. It should also be noted that automation equipment can provide consistent performance for many years, often well past the original payback period.

To address these challenges the British Automation and Robot Association, with the support of the UK government, has been running the automating manufacturing programme, providing independent expertise to help manufacturers identify opportunities for automation and work with the client to develop appropriate concepts and specifications. However, we need many more companies to seriously look at automation as a means to improve their competitiveness. With the use of appropriate automation, UK manufacturing will prosper and grow, securing employment and providing benefit to the country as a whole.

Mike Wilson has 30 years’ experience in the application of automation to manufacturing. He is the owner and managing director of Creative Automation Solutions, providing consultancy and training to the automation and manufacturing industries.