UK automation initiative kicks off

6 min read

Andrew Allcock reviews the background to, and progress on, the EAMA/BARA two-year automation push, which is backed by Government cash to the tune of £600,000. It's still all to do, he discovers

Automation is getting higher billing at the moment, following the announcement by the Government in its Manufacturing Review of £600,000 support for a two-year automation and robotics programme to be run by the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA) and the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA), together with other trade associations. Expected to kick off this summer, already breakfast meetings have been held in support of the Automating Manufacturing Campaign at several locations around the UK to explain the message to industry. An automotive and fabricated parts focus meeting was held at Lander Automotive, Birmingham, on 29 March; food manufacturers were invited to the National Centre for Food Manufacturing near Peterborough the day after; and electrical components makers had a get-together at Harwin plc, Southampton, on 1 April. This programme of action results from previous work undertaken by EAMA and BARA, supported by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which resulted in the publication of its 'Automation Study', a benchmarking exercise that pitted the UK versus other European countries, with a particular emphasis on SMEs (see below for full report PDF download). This was a four-country benchmarking study that showed UK manufacturers have invested significantly less in modern manufacturing technologies than their counterparts in mainland Europe. As a result, many UK manufacturers aren't as competitive as they could be. The report identified that UK manufacturing has fallen a long way behind its European competitors. Taking robot use as an example, Germany has an installed base of 144,800 industrial robots, Spain 28,600, whereas the UK claims a figure of just 15,100 (see box item below). SUPPORT WELCOMED The Government's support for the two-year programme has obviously been welcomed by BARA and EAMA, as well as robot manufacturers. KUKA's managing director, Alan Shilton, for one, has praised the initiative. It has also helped spur the establishment of the Automation Advisory Services (set up by BARA president Mike Wilson and colleague David Bradford, both of whom boast a long and impressive background in the robot/automation technology supply sector (see online feature). Image: Automation initiative welcomed by KUKA's Alan Shilton But at the end of last year, just one day before the publication of the Government's 'Advanced Manufacturing Growth Review' on 10 December, which saw the announcement of the £600,000 support, ABB held an automation event with a number of partners, during which a wider picture of automation was presented. Setting the scene on the day was Alan Spreckley, ABB's channel partner manager. ABB (01908 350300) introduced painting robots in 1969 and the world's first commercially available electric robot in 1974. As at the end of 2009, it had installed over 170,000 robots. Each year, there are around 100,000 robots installed worldwide; ABB typically installs 11-12,000/year, although both figures have been lower in the past couple of years. So why should UK manufacturing install robots? Well, he says, UK manufacturing has to compete with low- cost countries; is perceived to be under attack; is affected by rising energy costs, which influences investment and long-term certainty; suffers a shortage of skilled labour; and lives in the shadow of the service sector – fewer people entering the sector, he explains. But Mr Spreckley underlined the fact that the UK comes 14th in a list of countries/regions, as measured by percentage of robots installed per 10,000 inhabitants. While Japan, at number one spot, has more then 310 per 10,000 inhabitants, the UK manages just over 50. Interestingly, countries such as China, Korea, India and Brazil – which are increasing their use of robots fast – do not have high labour costs, underlines Mr Spreckley, adding: "They recognise the benefits of consistency and product quality." So what holds back the UK's investment in robotics? "The perceptions are that it is because there is an abundance of low-cost labour – but others with low labour rates are investing in robots; that there is uncertainty about the future – but robot on-costs are low, compared to people; that robots are too complicated – they are not; that robots require specialist skills to program them – they do not; and that the UK's short-term approach to investment is a disincentive, and this is an area that concerns me," he offers. Investment justification in the UK is "quick and dirty", with the cost of automation divided by the amount of labour saved. "Other countries take more factors in to consideration." Image: Robot density in the UK, compared to other countries, is low Importantly, unlike labour rates, which tend to rise over time, the price of technology falls. So, for the period 1990 to 2007, while hourly labour rates rose by 105%, the real price of robots fell by 48%, according to World Robotics 2008, Mr Spreckley reports. The typical hourly operating expense per employee he puts at £12.50, while a robot would cost just £5. And the availability of remote monitoring and service for robots from ABB can maintain system uptime. So, ABB offers 10 reasons to invest in robotics. In providing examples, he cites automated fridge magnet plastic moulding unloading, UK; welding of supermarket trolleys, Portugal; paint spraying at an automotive parts supplier, Australia; automation at a precision metal caster, USA; small parts packaging, Germany and Switzerland; flat pack furniture packaging, Sweden; and foundry automation, Italy. (See ABB investment calculator ). ABB Channel partner Neuteq (01827 313644) offers some practical applications of robot technology. The 25-employee firm turns over £5.5 million and boasts companies such a Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, Meggitt and Renault. About 40% of Neuteq's installations relate to deburring, advises technical engineer Leroy Garratt, who quoted paybacks in the realms of a few months for some of the examples. And an example deburring cell was available for visitors to view at the event, in fact. But 60% of its work is of the load/unload type and also on show was an automated Haas MiniMill serviced by an ABB 140 foundry specification model located within the machining envelope and fitted with a Schunk gripper. It had a reach of 800 mm, can carry a load of load of 6 kg and positions to an accuracy of 60 micron (calibrated robots can manage 20-25 micron). This totally enclosed solution, which featured four load/unload stations, avoids the need for interlocks and external magazines, which adds cost. LOW-COST MACHINE AUTOMATION Such a set-up is priced at £30,000 (excluding gripper) and the company has already installed six such installations at an automotive company, it reported at the event. Importantly, there is no need for expensive robot programming software with this solution, it was highlighted. And following the MACH exhibition last year, orders for this technology are now filtering through, Neuteq reports. However, on the subject of robot NC programming, 4D Engineering (01285 650111) highlighted Mastercam's Robotmaster CAM programming – Robotmaster seamlessly integrates robot programming, simulation and code generation inside Mastercam, delivering quicker robot programming, working with a solid model of the actual robot and part. The technology is said to be ideal for applications such as trimming, 3D machining, deburring, polishing, dispensing and grinding. ABB has its RobotStudio robot simulation software, of course, but this offers system simulation at higher level for applications other than robot-based machining, it was highlighted. Image: Automation such as this from Thame Workholding may also get a boost A final piece of the automation jigsaw was introduced by production monitoring software specialist Seiki Systems (01273 680411). Planning, scheduling (finite capacity), machine monitoring, data analysis and reporting were managing director John Davis' thrust, because automation must run effectively and efficiently. The company's products provide the electronic connection between the shopfloor (machines/people), production engineering/programming (CADCAM/people) and the generated MRP schedule (infinite capacity). The company's systems help prepare and collate information, transfer and receive it, as well as provide control over it, in the case of NC program revisions, for example. And it also allows analysis of, for instance, machine activity to support process/organisational improvement. This is all part of its Productivity Suite's functionality, which takes in five steps – plan, inform, make, record, improve. As a general rule, Seiki Systems claims to be able to deliver a 5% improvement in productivity following application of its technology, with paybacks of under a year claimed. And with some machine controls, such as Fanuc via its FOCAS interface (Ethernet) and Haas' MDC (RS232), deep data can be extracted from machine tools without the addition of extra hardware, it was offered. But, unlike in the US, there is no head of steam in the UK or Europe behind the MTConnect initiative (www.mtconnect.org), which supports control data openness. Box item The study in more detail The EAMA study focused on two sectors: engineered products and food manufacturing. It benchmarked these activities against three other countries, Germany, Spain and Sweden, interviewing SMEs for the most part. Regarding the automotive sector, although the lead user in the UK, due to the internationalisation, manufacturing technologies, plant and equipment is often developed in the home country, rather than the UK. As a result, says the study, the majority of the larger suppliers of automated equipment in the UK are subsidiaries of overseas parents, rather than centres of innovation in their own right; UK-owned businesses are often relatively small, with the impact being that there is less strength in the UK supply chain from which to promote and sell automation across all the other sectors. On problems with automation in the UK, the report has this to say. "When it comes to the initial specification of a new automation solution, there is more dissatisfaction among UK customers. They, typically the less advanced, report that the automation supplier does not know enough about their business. In contrast, the more advanced customers are more prepared to specify exactly what they want against which the supplier can quote." It's different in Germany. "Less experienced buyers find that the automation suppliers have done what they want before, and can advise them. The more advanced buyers have more skill in preparing their specifications and generally the customers in Germany are more prepared to specify their requirements." Clearly, says the report, this indicates a problem in the interface between the automation suppliers and the manufacturer/customer in the UK. And it suggests "a lack of skills within customers, lack of resources within integrators and, probably, a lack of specific industry knowledge at the UK offices of the main automation equipment suppliers". Part of the solution, it is suggested, might be to look at Sweden's 'Robotdalen' programme. And, in addition to these issues, we have financial and investment support differences, compared to our European friends. Full abridged summary. Image: Incentives elsewhere are better