Manufacturing Automation is the key

According to Government statistics, UK manufacturing accounts for 11% of GDP. This makes the UK number 11 in world rankings. However, a new study for the Manufacturing Technologies Association (MTA) and conducted by Oxford Economics indicates the true impact UK manufacturing to be more than double this. It accounts for 48% of UK exports, and means UK manufacturing automation is more important than ever.

When thinking about advanced factory automation the first places that come to mind are invariably car plants. Images are of robot assembly lines, relatively few people and widespread use of AGVs. However, achieving this level of automation requires huge levels of commitment and capital investments. Car makers are not stupid: they do not invest these sums of money without it offering a significance return on investment (RoI).

Organisations lucky enough to be planning a greenfield manufacturing site have time to consider their goals and specify the equipment they require. Certainly, they will be thinking about Smart Machines, Industry 4.0 and IIoT. For the rest of us it is more often about keeping the production going; removing bottlenecks and avoiding unexpected down-time.

The challenge for most manufacturers is that the manufacturing sites are already producing products. It is difficult to implement new automation without disrupting what already exists. It is important therefore there any automation improvements are scalable.

Machine automation is a key opportunity for achieving energy efficiency and improved machine performance. Only by monitoring what is happening can we understand what improvements are necessary. Modern machines already integrate huge data processing capabilities.

In addition to PCs, most PLCs, inverter drives and even HMIs use sophisticated CPUs and operating systems. However, most of this is for machine control rather than sharing the information. It is also important to understand that equipment and device manufacturers are continually improving their products to improve integration and share more information.

Industry 4.0 is still in its infancy, but it focuses around collecting, storing and processing data to improve manufacturing decision making. To move towards Industry 4.0 and IIoT, manufacturers need to start harvesting this data.

Why do organisations automate

Manufacturing automation improvement does not happen by accident. It needs to be part of a business strategy driven from top management. There are pressures on manufacturers to increase productivity and deliver stronger profits for their stakeholders. It means measuring Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) to identify bottleneck and production weaknesses. In addition, improve quality; to reduce operating costs; save energy; produce less waste and improve personnel safety. Manufacturing automation helps achieve all of these.

How do organisations automate

The short answer is with help. Few companies, if any have all the resources they need in the right place at the right time. However large the company, most use partners and suppliers to help them design and integrate new plant. If you will excuse the pun, automation does not need to be a big bang. Scalability of investment and equipment is the only practicable way forwards for most SMEs.

Many of the resources available to large manufacturers are also available to smaller manufacturers. Device makers, factory automation equipment suppliers, system integrators and consulting firms and specialist automation distributors like BPX are on-hand to support manufacturers. The Government also offers tax incentives for energy-saving investments like using more VSDs and similar products. You just need to ask.

Furthermore, companies like Schneider Electric have developed their EcoStruxure automation umbrella to ensure their products are able to integrate and communicate with each other. They also produce many helpful White Papers on the benefits of integrating newer technologies.

Another approach offered as an alternative to single sourcing, is the Mitsubishi Electric e-F@actory. The e-F@ctory alliance partnership integrates products from hundreds of best-in-class solutions providers.

Recent developments already being introduced by a competitor near you include:

– Additive manufacturing (3D printing)

– Artificial intelligence

– Virtual reality and augmented reality

– Collaborative robotics (Cobots)

– Increased use of wireless and remote technologies

– Intelligent Condition Monitoring

By its nature integrating new technologies advances the face of manufacturing automation. The future is about embracing new technologies, not using it as an excuse for inactivity. They will impact on manufacturing automation.