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Charlotte Stonestreet

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Delivering the future 19/06/2018

Amongst the many industrial shows and events that I attend throughout the year, the UKIVA Machine Vision Conference always proves to be one of the most interesting, with its extensive programme covering not just what is possible today, but also what we will be seeing in the near future.

One of this year’s key note presentations was from Starship Technologies - not, as you might think some kind of space exploration set-up, but a manufacturer and operator of delivery robots, set up in 2014 by Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, two of the cofounders of Skype.

While I have read about and even seen examples of the robots before, VP  of marketing at Starship Technologies, Henry Harris-Burland, really brought the concept to life in this presentation. Designed to deliver loads such as parcels, groceries, or even takeaway food orders within a two-mile radius, and thus addressing ‘final-mile’ delivery issues, the robots are around a shoulder-width wide and move at pedestrian speed along pavements. The person to whom the delivery is being made uses an app to specify a time and location to rendezvous with the robot.

According to Harris-Burland, where the robots are in use (currently including parts of London and Milton Keynes in the UK) they seem to have attracted relatively little attention on the streets while in operation, with most people simply ignoring them (although I’m not entirely sure this would be the case where I live in semi-rural Sussex where an Uber is still a rare sight!) Inherently safe  and tracked at all times, the robots navigate around people and objects and feature a cargo bay that can only be opened by the recipient. And the aim is to provide the service for £1, or €1, per delivery.

With online ordering becoming ever more prevalent, the manner in which we receive goods is undoubtedly going to have to change, and while drone deliveries still seem a bit, well “sci-fi”, the Starship delivery robots offer a solution that is most definitely here today.

One of the things that really struck me during the presentation, apart from the sheer inevitability of this type of technology and business model, was how the company had developed the delivery robot with large scale production in mind right from the very beginning. Rather than using the most cutting-edge, and therefore most expensive, technologies and techniques, the company has been mindful to ensure the manufacturing costs do not hinder growth to the effect that it is able to produce the robots, says Harris-Burland, for not much more than a smart phone. While vision and blue-sky thinking undoubtedly has its place in today's industrial sector, it is the type of practical long term thinking seen at Starship that all businesses should all aspire to for success.

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Manufacturing needs its mojo 03/05/2018

At the recent MACH exhibition, Jürgen Maier, Chief Executive of Siemens UK and chair of the Made Smarter industry-led review talked about how the UK manufacturing sector could, as he put it, “get it’s mojo back”.

While he did recall the heyday of the 1960s Maier was very clear that any future success will come not from the traditional manufacturing that we have been used to, but from smarter, digital manufacturing. The future of manufacturing is not just about the machine, but it is about the physical asset of the machine and its associated data and the extra productivity that can be gained by harnessing that data.

According to Maier, if you want to solve the UK’s productivity issues, the sector that you should be investing in is manufacturing and technology. As he asserted at the event, UK manufacturing is currently buoyant, politicians are talking positively about the sector and portraying it as the growth engine of the economy, exports are rising and technological development is apparent. It is the sector that can apply digital technologies, through which productivity can be driven.

However, the picture isn’t all rosy. Maier pointed out that, while there is ambition to improve, when it comes to investment in R&D the UK still lags behind other advanced industrial nations with about 1.7% of GDP (joint government and private sector) going into R&D compared with an average of 2.5%. And on the ground, when you look at what the UK is doing compared to some of its key competitors, particularly in advanced digital technologies, not enough is being invested.

Maier identified skills as an area that is particularly lacking in investment, both in general eduction terms and when it comes to businesses investing in their workforces. For the UK to lead, Maier feels that everyone in manufacturing needs to know about the potential of digital technologies and urged those in the sector to upskill and train people in the principles behind them.

And then there’s investment in the technologies themselves, something Maier identified as being sorely lacking. For any smaller business who might be thinking that the whole journey towards digitalisation sounds complicated and expensive, though, he pointed out that there are relatively inexpensive solutions available that make a good starting point.

It is also vital that the UK increases its innovation, creating the technologies that are part of the fourth industrial revolution. As Mair said, “We need to be the providers of the Industrial Internet of Things platforms. We need to have people here in the UK who are writing the code behind those, who are creating the machine learning, the artificial intelligence that sits in those platforms.”

And, really, who can argue otherwise?

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More robots doesn't have to mean fewer jobs 08/03/2018

There is no doubt about it, even if the UK is not leading the way when it comes to implementing industrial robots, the worldwide movement towards more automated, digitalised ways of working will increasingly impact on people’s work and the roles that they carry out within the workplace. Indeed the workplace itself will be - and in many cases already is – altered as a result of growing robot and AI implementation.

Naturally, for some there is a degree of anxiety. Uncertainty is rarely a good thing, particularly if it’s people’s livelihoods potentially on the line. Little wonder then that there has been plenty of negative press coverage, often along the lines of “the robots are coming to take your job”!

However, there are signs that the tide is turning and more knowledge of the benefits of automation is filtering through. This could be something to do with the current developments in collaborative robots, or cobots, which are becoming progressively mainstream. Or it could just be that as we increasingly use AI in the consumer market – witness the proliferation of the Amazon Alexa  – we are more accepting of sister technologies in the workplace.

A recent survey of over 2000 UK workers by Industrial Vision Systems has found that many are unconcerned about the impact new technology may have on their current job role, with 49% of respondents indicating that they would be happy or very happy if a factory used artificial intelligence robots to make decisions on quality control.

The research also found some misconceptions about the impact robots and artificial intelligence can have in aiding productivity in the workplace. However, with  quarter of employees stating that if they had a robot colleague assisting them at work, they would feel threatened that they might take their job - that left 75% that did not feel their job was threatened.

Looking at these figures, I can’t help feeling that this might give a pretty accurate picture of the impact of automation. Undoubtedly, some of today’s roles within the workplace will be replaced by robots; on the other hand many roles will evolve to work with robots, rather than being usurped by them. Whether this takes to form of a 25/75 percent split remains to be seen.

And let’s not forget, under most economic circumstances, increased investment in automation results in increased productivity, which in turn leads to more growth and, ultimately, more jobs. If the UK strives to make the right investment decisions and keep its workforce well trained and educated in the latest technologies, there’s no reason why automation has to lead to unemployment.

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Malware targets industrial safety systems 15/01/2018

News has emerged of a malicious software designed specifically to enable the damage or destruction of industrial equipment. Reports say that the ‘Triton’ malware, which has been designed specifically to communicate with safety instrumented systems (SIS) and deploy alternative logic to these devices, has been used used against at least one organisation in the Middle East, although it's not known in what kind of industrial facility, or even in which country, the malware appeared.

Seemingly having been in existence since at least August 2017, Triton, which is also known as Trisis, works by infecting a Windows computer that is expected to be connected to a SIS device. The malware then injects code modifying the behaviour of the SIS device. However, at present the intended effect is unclear and investigation is still underway. The incident was originally disclosed by FireEye, when its subsidiary, Mandiant, which specialises in acting on and proactively protecting against advanced cyber security threats, responded to an incident at a critical infrastructure organisation.

Triton specifically targets Triconex products sold by Schneider Electric. In the reported incident, the Triconex systems entered a ‘fail safe’ state and the plant was shut down safely. However, there has been speculation that much more serious damage could have been caused.

Here in the UK, the National Cyber Security Centre is of the opinion that to deploy and successfully activate such malware, the attacker would need to know a target environment in-depth. The process of acquiring this knowledge may take several weeks or months, during which the attacker is likely to have used engineering documentation and enumeration of the network to further their goals.

While there is no information to suggest that the malware is more broadly deployable - indeed, it likely does not pose an immediate threat to other Schneider Electric customers, let alone other SIS products it could signal the beginning of a new era. Triton is one of only a handful viruses reported to date capable of disrupting industrial processes – the first and most infamous being Struxnet – yet its very existence suggests that it won’t be long before other hackers will try and copy this type of attack.

For more information on Triton and tips on how to mitigate against this type of cyber security threat whatever your SIS device vendor visit the NCSE website at http://bit.ly/2DbMDsT

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Driving technology take up 23/11/2017

I was recently lucky enough to visit ABB’s facility in Helsinki. As you can imagine, conversation at one the world’s leading providers of variable speed drives inevitably turned to the huge level of electric motors that operate without a VSD.

A group of us had toured the site, including the particularly impressive forensic labs that help to ensure product coming out of the facility achieves the highest levels of reliability. We were all well versed in the benefits of using VSDs, both in terms of energy efficiency and productivity - yet we were still faced with the conundrum of why still less than one in ten of every electric motor is fitted with a VSD.

Let’s just think about that figure for a moment... more than 90% of electric motors are not fitted with VSDs. OK, so not every situation is going to benefit from a VSD, but with around half of all motor applications having some kind of varying demand, many, many would. A variable speed drive can reduce energy consumption by as much as 60%. For a 90kW motor in continuous duty, this can mean over £9000 per year. Of course, the amount that you save does depend on the price paid for energy in the first palce, however, even in the countries with the highest energy costs, the uptake of VSD technology is woefully low. In a sector that has long been shouting about the benefits of VSDs, both in terms of a healthier bottom line and the environmental advantages to be gained, it seems incredible that the message still hasn’t got through.

Whatever lies behind industry’s reluctance to invest in VSDs, it certainly seems as if a new approach is needed in order to encourage more widespread use of the technology. If it is the capital expenditure that is making potential users balk, then perhaps more inventive financing options could be encouraged. In the consumer sector, they way many people finance cars has changed with the latest deals meaning they lease their vehicles rather than owning them outright. Likewise, in the building energy management sector, there are many innovative SMEs installing energy saving solutions and taking their payment out of the resulting cost savings.
Surely there is the opportunity for imaginative entrepreneurs to apply this type of model to the motors and drives sector. As I witnessed at the Helsinki plant, today’s  quality VSDs offer really high levels of reliability, so negating potential worries about failure and unplanned downtime, particularly when combined with the latest condition monitoring systems.

Imagine the worldwide energy savings if, instead of less than 10% of ten motors being fitted with a VSD the figure was reversed and more than 90% were fitted with a VSD. It’s almost unimaginable, yet in theory it should be possible.

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The growing need for agricultural automation 13/10/2017

Since the UK voted for Brexit, the number of EU workers coming to the UK has dropped; not only do many feel less welcome, the lower value of Sterling means it is no longer as financially rewarding to work in the UK was it once was. And, in case you missed it last month, a leaked Home Office document left no doubts that post-Brexit the government intends to drive down even more the number of low-skilled EU migrants in the UK.

While many will welcome this – indeed, British jobs for British people was a strong rationale in voting for Brexit amongst many – it does pose a problem for those industries that rely on low cost EU labour. This can, for example, be seen in across agriculture, particularly in soft fruits where it is estimated that 9 out of 10 seasonal pickers and packers come from the EU, primarily Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. According to a report commissioned by the British Summer Fruits trade body, if UK-based producers are forced to move their operations to countries within the EU to ensure access to labour, it is estimated the price of strawberries will rise from around £2 per 400g punnet to £2.75 – a jump of 37%. Replacing homegrown raspberries with imported fruit would see the price of a 200g punnet jump 50% from £2 to £3. Not great news for the British consumer.

However, there is an upside to all this. Earlier this year, a report by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee predicted that controlled EU immigration after Brexit will likely see UK firms seek to replace cheap labour with increased investment in automation and technology. And anecdotally this can be seen happening already. At the recent PPMA (Processing and Packaging Machinery Association) Show, many exhibitors identified the Brexit vote and consequent drop in the number of EU workers as a catalyst for investment in automation.

Thankfully there are innovative companies out there offering automated solutions to fill the gap. According to Brillopak director David Jahn: “Improving packing productivity and economic output per hour will be central to boosting efficiency and offsetting fresh produce price rises. With packhouses grappling with this imminent EU labour crisis, combined with rising minimum wages, many Brillopak customers are seriously exploring automated case loading systems.”

Of course, increasing automation to replace low-skilled EU workers isn’t going to help low-skilled British workers enter the labour market. However, I can’t help thinking that this was never really going to happen anyway. You only have to look at projects like the Hand Free Hectare, run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, which successfully planted, tended and harvested a crop with only autonomous vehicles and drones to realise that automation, rather than workforce, will increasingly be the key to agricultural achievement in the years to come.

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Let's not wait 50 years 31/08/2017

Recently I read with interest an article by Tim Harford exploring “Why didn’t electricity immediately change manufacturing?”. In it, Harford recalls economists in the 1980s having widely held scepticism about the adoption of computerisation resulting in a positive impact on productivity levels; he likens it to the situation 100 years earlier when the then remarkable new developments involving electricity did not result in the surge in productivity that might have been expected.

In 1881, Thomas Edison, who had already invented reusable light bulbs in the late 1870s, built electricity generating stations in Manhattan and London; within a year, he was selling electricity as a commodity, and a year later, the first electric motors were driving manufacturing machinery. Yet by 1900, as Harford reports, less than 5% of mechanical drive power in American factories was coming from electric motors.

Despite the many, by then obvious, disadvantages of steam engines, very few factory owners chose to replace them with electric motors and draw clean and modern power from a nearby generating station. Looking at the reasons behind this, Harford points to the fact that unless factory owners started to think in a different way, the huge investment associated with replacing steam engines with electric motors actually produced pretty disappointing returns.

Yes, a motor could be made to slot into the old system, but it could also do so much more, delivering power exactly when and where needed. As Harford points out, steam-powered factories had to be arranged on the logic of the driveshaft; electricity meant you could organise factories on the logic of a production line.

However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that productivity levels in the US really took off, and although there were undoubtedly a great many contributing factors, economic historian Paul David gives much of the credit to the fact that manufacturers had finally figured out how to use technology that was nearly 50 years old.

Harford’s article got me thinking about today’s disruptive technologies, and whether it is possible to draw comparisons with the challenges faced by manufacturers at the end of the 19th century. Then, in order to take advantage of the electric motor, factory owners would have to completely change the production process. In contrast, today it is possible to implement the latest Industry 4.0 technologies in just a small part of the production process – effectively enabling potential users to begin with a small step. And often, just one small step can reap big benefits. That’s not to say a complete overhaul and adoption of smart technologies doesn’t have its place, it’s just that total process change is not always necessary in order to reap the benefits.

While any new, or indeed evolving, technology is always going to need adopters to start thinking in different ways, I am hopeful that we won’t have to wait nearly half a century before today’s amazing developments are fully embraced!

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Cyber security wake-up call 03/07/2017

With cases like the WannaCry ransom wear being targeted at high profile organisations including the NHS, and more recently the latest version of Petya causing permanent and irreversible damage to disks in organisations stretching from law firms in the USA to construction companies in France hitting the headlines it seems as if the proliferation of cyber attacks is on a sharp upward trajectory.

While WannaCry wasn’t specifically designed to target industrial control systems, many manufacturers were among the 230,000+ computers it infected across 150 countries, including production operations of Nissan, PetroChina and Renault. Add to this, the latest version of Petya (dubbed NotPetya  because it differed from an earlier iteration) taking out Ukraine’s power grid, railways and communications, and infecting pharma company Merck and food giant Mondelez International in the US, and the industrial sector really should be getting something of a wake-up call.

It stands to reason that, as Industry 4.0, IIoT and smart factories drive the convergence between the IT and OT parts of companies in the industrial sector, their vulnerability to cyber attack by malware intended primarily to target the business or infrastructure sectors will increase.

Plus, it’s not just ‘general’ malware that poses a risk: Perhaps an even more frightening prospect, Industroyer is the second known case of a virus built and released specifically to disrupt industrial control systems, the first being first was Stuxnet. Industroyer attacks electricity substations and circuit breakers using industrial communication protocols which are standardised across different types – from power, water and gas supply to transportation control.

A timely report from Crest, the not-for-profit accreditation body representing the technical information security industry, highlights a pressing need to improve cyber security in Industrial Control System (ICS) environments to avoid future breaches that could impact critical national infrastructure.

Its latest position paper, ‘Industrial Control Systems: Technical Security Assurance’ identifies a number of challenges and suggests that more technical security testing has a significant role to play in ensuring higher levels of security assurance are met.
Drawing on the diverse views of the Industrial Control Systems and technical security communities and the paper proposes a model for gaining greater assurance in ICS environments. It was based on the findings of a research project - which looked to set out the main challenges and possible solutions for protecting Industrial Control Systems, many of which are based on legacy technologies.

One of the key findings in the report is the absence of periodic standards-based technical security testing that is commonplace in many other industries. Because of this, asserts CREST, ICS environment owners and operators have no objective way of knowing whether cyber risk is being adequately managed and at present there is no definitive standard for testing ICS environments that is mandated by regulatory bodies. The fact that ICS environments are rapidly changing also leads to a higher degree of exposure.
“ICS environment owners require assurances that risk is being identified, assessed and evaluated. Above all else they need to know that there are appropriate measures in place to manage and mitigate risk,” says Ian Glover, president of CREST.

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Back to the future 22/05/2017

While some may argue that industry, manufacturing and technology – as covered in CDA – are not political issues (indeed, the CDA editorial team has had feedback from some readers indicating this view in no uncertain terms!), I am of the opinion that these subjects are of utmost political importance.

Indeed, in the light of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, and the current Government’s intention to also break away from the European single market, the strength of these sectors is absolutely vital if the UK is to hold its own in the global market.

Therefore, as the various political parties gave detail of their manifestos this week, I was keen to see how how these issues featured and whether there were any firm promises to be welcomed. To be honest, I think maybe I was being a bit naive in hoping for moves to strengthen the industrial sector to be at the heart of any political party’s manifesto - but I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed that there seems to be very little of substance to welcome.

Of course, one of the Labour Party’s main commitments is to renationalise mail, rail and energy firms. Perhaps depending on where you consume the majority of your news from, this could be a good or a bad thing. While much of the right wing press is bleating about a “return to the seventies”, it is worth considering that many of our European counterparts retain a strong element of public ownership in these areas and still provide a level of service that Southern Rail commuters can old dream of.

While we’re talking about rail, it should be noted tthat Britain’s rail franchises are already owned and operated by state-owned companies; it's just that they are not the home state! For example, Arriva, which runs the Welsh railways, is part of Deutche Bahn, ScotRail is in the hands of the Dutch state rail operator, Abellio, Southeastern line is 35% owned by Kelios, the French state rail operator’s international subsidiary and the Essex-operator C2c is part of Trenitalia, the Italian state rail company.

And, on a bit of tangent, let’s not forget that EDF, which supplies many a domestic property with energy, actually stands for Électricité de France, which is largely owned by the the French state.

I’m by no means saying that renationalisation is a no brainer. There’s always the danger that state owned and run industries will be less than disciplined when it comes to budgetary issues. It might even be the case that such organisations will be run in the interests of the employees rather than the consumers (although in this day and age, that does seem to be somewhat unlikely). However, the UK really should look to its European neighbours and the way in which they successfully run state-owned industries before writing off reationalisation as a purely backwards step.

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A game of catch up? 31/03/2017

I was recently privileged to attend the launch of the new All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Founded and currently chaired by Conservative MP for Havant, Alan Mak, the APPG aims to support and promote the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Parliament, and encourage Government, Parliamentarians, academia, the private sector, and other stakeholders, to engage with 4IR-related issues.

With the Chancellor Philip Hammond as Guest of Honour, the event certainly conveyed the gravitas with which this hugely important development should be approached. And indeed, the positive and forward thinking attitude of all who spoke, along with the aims and objectives of the APPG must be praised.

There were, however, a few issues that I felt were rather conveniently avoided by all. The general message conveyed was that the UK is in a prime position to be at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution - and indeed, as one of the richest economies in the in the world, it is. However, when it comes to automation in the industrial sector (with some notable exceptions, for example automotive), the UK lags behind much of the developed world when it comes to investing in and implementing the latest technologies. If the UK is to lead Industry 4.0, this will have to change.

And then there’s the issue of whether the UK is already in a position of having to play catch up when it comes to I4.0. While there is undoubtedly a huge range of talented people in the UK working on/towards I4.0 associated technologies, it cannot be denied that many of the real trail blazers are already well-established, and that many of these companies and individuals are not in the UK! Indeed, I’ve had conversations with some in the industrial sector, who feel the UK has already missed the boat in terms of being at the fore of Industry 4.0.

In contrast, Germany is undoubtedly top of the pile when it comes to all things I4.0; indeed the German government was actually instrumental in coming up with the concept in the first place. Therefore, I was a little surprised when reading Alan Mak’s “Masters of the Revolution: Why the Fourth Industrial Revolution should be at the heart of Britain’s new Industrial Strategy” to note that both he and George Freeman, MP, were extolling the virtues of the UK no longer having to abide by “precautionary principle” post Brexit. While I appreciate this is all part of a bigger picture, Germany’s having to work in accordance with precautionary principle has by no means held the country back when it comes to I4.0. Therefore, I imagine that removing precautionary principle in the UK will make little or no difference to UK industry’s adoption and development of such enabled technology.

Of course, the launch of the APPG may not have been an appropriate time or place to consider these points. However, the fact does remain that such issues really do need to be addressed if the UK is to be competitive in an increasingly global economy.

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Charlotte Stonestreet is an experienced b2b editor and has worked across a range of industrial titles including Handling & Storage Solutions, Factory Equipment and Materials Handling News.

She has also contributed to the 'Energy Procurement essential guide to excellence'.

Having gained a degree in English with Media Studies, Charlotte started out her publishing career on a voluntary basis, producing a newsletter for Mencap.