How is the manufacturing sector in the North East evolving; How and where are automation and robotics being applied, and into which sectors; How are influencing factors such as BREXIT and COVID-19 driving change…?
KUKA UK Silver system partner, ALTEC Engineering, explore and consider several influencing factors that support the argument ‘for’ robotic process automation in industry, in the North East of England. Jon Alderson, Special Purpose Business Development Manager, ALTEC, offers his perceptions and perspectives on the region, its manufacturing dynamic, sector strengths and growth.
25 May 2021
Q: What are the region’s most influential manufacturing sectors, and how does this compare to the rest of the UK, from a manufacturing perspective?
There is little doubt that the Automotive sector plays a key role in the region, not just with the Nissan plant, but with the Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers who are also located in the area. This looks set to continue with the ongoing drive for EV’s and the plans for a Giga-Factory in the region. The North East, to some extent, also mirrors other areas in the UK which have a large automotive manufacturing presence, however, the Nissan plant, being one of the most productive worldwide, was perhaps instrumental in setting the standards which have been adopted by other OEM’s.
Q: What might their successes be attributed to?
Process optimization (responding to demand)
The Automotive sector has always been an ‘Early Adopter’ of new and emerging technologies and this is reinforced by the numbers of robots now in production across the sector. Robots and automation deliver the flexibility needed to respond dynamically to changes in production schedules, new product introduction, and the increasing ‘personalisation’ of vehicles, etc. Product quality (output improvements) The introduction of automation has made a significant contribution to improvements in quality, consistency, and yield. The inherent repeatability of automated processes ensures that standards, specifications, and tolerances are achieved and maintained for each, and every product. Product cost (throughput efficiency) The predictable performance and quality which comes with the introduction of Automation and Robotics to any manufacturing process, make a valuable contribution to cost reduction. Increased productivity, higher yields, and reduced labour costs combine to drive down manufacturing costs. Competitive advantage (encapsulating all the above) Manufacturers who embrace the multiple benefits which Automation and Robotics can deliver are able to capitalize on the Competitive Advantage these technologies bring. Aside from the benefits to their in-house manufacturing processes, the ability to demonstrate a track record of automated manufacturing will enhance opportunities for new contracts with existing customers and also support proposals to new potential customers.
Q: Reshoring post BREXIT, is having a positive impact upon the UK manufacturing sector, the North East more so. How do you see this trend influencing the uptake of robot process automation?
The drive to secure and shorten supply chains through Re-Shoring, by several manufacturers, has definitely had a positive impact on the potential for Automation and Robotics. Skills shortages combined with higher UK labour costs when compared to other economies and a real focus on the ‘Carbon Footprint’ associated with transporting goods around the world have all played a part in manufacturers seeking to adopt the levels of Automation needed to maintain supply and reduce manufacturing costs.
Q: There are a huge number of students studying STEM subjects at the North East’s many universities. How do you think this shall contribute to the NE manufacturing revival?
The students studying STEM subjects and passing through the North East’s Universities will be a valuable and much-needed asset for future manufacturing within the North East. This region, like much of the UK, has suffered badly from years of under-investment in training apprentices and engineers resulting in the current skills shortages. It’s great to see so many of this generation discovering engineering and manufacturing as a career.
Q: Thinking about the previous question, will robotics and automation continue to grow within industry in the NE, considering the millennials that will replace a legacy workforce and bridge the skills gap?
Those of the current generation entering a manufacturing environment at the end of their training can make a valuable contribution to changing attitudes to established manufacturing practices and automation. In what could be termed a role reversal, the new generation can help reassure, educate and train a legacy workforce in the use of new technologies ultimately raising the skill level across the whole workforce.
Q: How do ALTEC fit within the NE manufacturing evolution; how are solutions and systems changing/diversifying, does this align with trends in other areas of the UK, such as the Midlands, as an example?
ALTEC has been very successful in developing new and increasingly more flexible and automated solutions for the customers we serve. Robots are playing an increasingly important role in the systems we provide, ensuring that our customers have the highest levels of flexibility and future-proofing. We believe that the requirements for flexibility and future-proofing are growing across all of the UK’s manufacturing base.
Q: What are business owners striving to achieve right now. How do robotics and automation align with these ambitions: consider future-proofing, smart factories, etc.?
It is essential that ALTEC continues to meet the immediate demands of our customers, but as a forward-thinking business, we continue to evolve our offering through the evaluation and implementation of new and emerging technologies. We believe that Robots, Cobots, Mobile Robots, and AGV’s will increasingly become an essential part of comprehensive automation solutions for many manufacturing businesses in the North East and beyond.
Q: What is the key message that you take to a customer when they might be considering robotics and automation? What are the ‘do’s and don’ts that you feel are critical in this decision-making process?
There are several key points which companies should and indeed must consider when thinking about automating:
Consider the parts and processes being targeted for automation. Apply the 80/20 rule where appropriate and do not compromise the whole project by trying to include a small number of variants which may compromise the overall solution and significantly increase costs.
Take a long-term view on payback if possible. The robots and the system will continue to operate for years and well beyond an unrealistically short payback time.
Be sure to include all of the benefits in the project justification process, such as quality, yield, improved productivity, reduced manufacturing costs, labour savings, and the ‘Contract Security’ which can come from the re-assurance customers will get from the fact that the manufacturing process is completely in control.
Discuss your plans with a reputable and trusted system integrator, and more importantly, listen to their advice and recommendations.
Don’t be afraid of technology - robots and many other proprietary automation technologies offer very high levels of performance and reliability, and the control systems used on robots and special purpose machines are now highly intuitive for operators and maintenance personnel.
Q: How do you/ALTEC see the UK manufacturing sector in five years’ time. How shall this current evolution position us against our European peers?
The UK’s manufacturing sector is now more important than it has been for decades. If the UK is to succeed, we need to increase levels of manufacturing overall, achieve the highest levels of productivity and keep manufacturing costs under control to remain competitive in world markets. The only way this can be achieved is by adopting much greater levels of automation.
Q: Ultimately how can, and indeed do ALTEC better support companies?
We should ensure that we take time to fully understand the individual business’ needs so we can tailor their automated solution to suit their specific requirements. Their current position and future growth plans are also key considerations, to ensure the solution fits with existing and forecast operational activity; there certainly isn’t a ‘standard’ automation solution that suits all company’s needs. We need to use our knowledge and experience to ensure we present the robotic technology most suited to the individual business’ objectives.