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Despite the turbulent political and economic climate, Martin feels that automation and manufacturing are in a promising position. Reasons for this include the numerous schemes and available incentives that encourage companies to turn to automation, wages increasing, prices of technology decreasing, and an overall increase in the demand for automation. This increased demand has partially come about from the aforementioned political and economic backdrop which has seen an increasing number of low-wage workers leaving the UK for booming economies back home in Eastern Europe. As a result, many companies are turning to automation as an obvious replacement for the loss of these workers.
However, a significant issue is that there is a lack of both system integrators and engineers in general to fulfil this increased demand. Martin believes one of the biggest challenges in the UK at the moment is the lack of automation engineers, production automation engineers and control system engineers embedded in manufacturers themselves. Going back 25 years, Martin remembers a time when most big manufacturers had a small team of engineers capable of specifying and even programming control and automation lines. In the last 25 years, numbers have thinned out so much that in some companies there are no specialised engineers at all and instead those companies rely entirely on machine builders and system integrators.
Martin says this is a problem because if there are no skills in manufacturers themselves, then it’s difficult to have the confidence levels to effectively automate production lines. This is a significant problem in the UK because companies are turning to system integrators without the necessary knowledge to convey what it is they actually want or need. The result is supply not keeping up with demand as fewer system integrators work for more companies to install less effective automation lines.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any UK companies capable of installing effective automation lines, but following a period of particularly low investment in automation, the UK simply needs more companies with skills in depth to match the recent upturn in demand. Martin remains positive though and feels there has been a real shift towards automation in the last couple of years which is obviously quite pleasing but has also come as quite a surprise.
One solution to the problem, Martin suggests, is certainly more apprenticeships and more skills from overseas. There are too few experienced engineers currently in the UK market and so companies need to develop their own through apprenticeships. Martin also points to the vast amount of engineers being developed in other parts of the world, such as India and China, where the UK would greatly benefit from procuring skilled engineers. Looking at his own team, Martin says a significant portion of his engineers are from overseas simply because there aren’t enough engineers with the required skill set available in the UK.
Another notable industry trend which has the potential to both help alleviate demand on integrators and also make automation easier for end users, is a new generation of control technology. Writing in PBSI February (available to read here: https://bit.ly/2W9uFfP), Martin believes that the use of traditional PLC-based architecture has become more limited due to the complexity of packaging lines increasing.
Packaging lines can be particularly complicated in terms of integrating control technology and robotics technology. Martin suggests that part of the issue is that control technology often comes from one set of companies and robotics comes from another set. On the one hand, there are robot specialists such as ABB, KUKA, FANUC, Yaskawa Motoman etc. which utilise big controllers and started off in the automotive industry before moving into the food and beverage sector. On the other hand you have Schneider, Rockwell, Siemens, and Mitsubishi etc. providing control technology that is being integrated with robots from another company. This has resulted in complicated lines with multiple controllers and large amounts of interconnection and communications. Up to certain speeds, this method works but it is costly and complicated.
Martin posits that traditional PLCs are now being replaced by a new type of controller, specifically “motion robotic controllers designed for ultra-high speed control of multiple axes in synchronisation, but also with some PLC sequential functions”. These controllers, such as Schneider’s PacDrive3, are beginning to displace a whole collection of robot controllers and traditional PLC’s. These controllers result in no interposing communications and save significant amounts of space since no large cabinets full of drive modules are required. One small cabinet with daisy chained power and communication to each motor on each robot cuts out extra equipment and cost.
Other than Schneider, other companies will already be working on their own designs of the controller technology and Martin believes that within a couple of years, there will be multiple variations available in the industry. The benefits of the technology are obvious: easier for integrators, easier for end users, more cost effective, and importantly the break-even point is much lower.
Overall, Martin feels the control and automation industry will continue moving forward despite the unpredictability of the current political and economic climate. And judging by the PacDrive3, the next generation of automation technology looks to be an interesting step forward.
Martin was sponsored through university and trained as a control systems engineer before joining the automation supply industry 30 years ago. Before joining Schneider Electric, he worked for Honeywell, Rockwell Automation, and ABB. Since 2008 Martin has been Chairman of the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA), an umbrella trade association representing circa 1,900 SME's into government.
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