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Charlotte Stonestreet

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The new norm 27/04/2020

If there’s one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has shown us, it’s that industry can be agile and innovative under the most arduous circumstances.

While government management of supply chains might not have been all it could be, there have been huge numbers of businesses stepping up the mark and adapting production processes to help provide much needed PPE. From the many one-man bands with a 3D printer producing visors for their local hospitals, to international clothing brands Barbour producing between 1000 to 1500 disposable gowns per day, the response has been beyond impressive.

It’s not just the producers of the end products that are putting in the extra effort, but also the companies that supply them with components and even in some cases with the actual production equipment. For example, Barbour has been helped in its efforts by by Jarrow-based UTS Engineering, which has donated two rigs that were produced from scratch for the process.

And although at time of writing we have not yet seen much in the way of ventilators from Dyson, which are still being reported as work-in-progress, there are huge numbers of companies re-allocating both production and brain-power in the widespread effort to ensure no one who needs a ventilator is left unable to access one.

Although it may not immediately be obvious, the Covid-19 will also undoubtedly have an impact on the uptake of automation. Already, we have seen examples of disinfecting robots, both within hospitals and wider public spaces. In China, teams of robots have been used in the care of Coronavirus patients on wards, delivering food and monitoring individuals via wristbands that gather data such as temperature and blood pressure.

Interestingly, in the UK agriculture sector it has been made apparent that we still have a way to go before we see widespread automation. Despite recent developments in robotic harvesting systems, fruit pickers and the like, when it became apparent that Joe Public has no wish to join the new Land Army and prevent food being left to rot in the field, it was to a plane full of Romanian field labourers that the farmers turned, not an army of robots – but that’s not to say that this won’t change in future as the technology becomes both more sophisticated and cheaper.

As the lockdown is eased, as it will inevitably have to be to preserve the economy, we will need to adhere to safe distances in the workplace, and what better way to achieve this than with automation. That collaborative robot that looked interesting before the pandemic might now be looking like more of a necessity. And of course, there’s the productivity angle - improved productivity will be vital for many businesses to survive it they are to overcome reduced revenue that has resulted from the pandemic, and automation will have a vital role to play.

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Culture wars 04/03/2020

It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone reading this magazine that the UK lags way behind it’s global counterparts when it comes to the implementation of robotic automation - a fact that was underlined at a recent event hosted by automatica exhibition, the British Automation and Robot Association and VDMA Robotics + Automation. What is quite shocking though, is just how far behind the UK is - in 2018 we didn’t even make it into the global top 15 in terms of industrial robot installations, and overall robot density (number of industrial robots per 10,000 employees in manufacturing) is just 91 compared with 338 in Germany, which leads in Europe.

So what lies behind the UK’s reluctance to invest in robotics automation? Well, Mike Wilson, Chairman of Bara has some ideas. Generally, he asserts, UK manufacturing needs to achieve short RoI and doesn’t think long-term. More recent times have also seen a proliferation of cheap labour, which has been used as an alternative to implementing automation.

Wilson also points to risk averseness and, while robot technology has been around for 40 plus years, it is still perceived as a new, risky technology. Ultimately, asserts Wilson, it is about our culture; referencing the All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group’s 2013 report “Making Good - A Study of Culture & Competitiveness in UK Manufacturing”, he summarises it thus: “Basically, we are very proud that we keep all of our old machines running; in Germany they are very proud that they bought new ones.”

He continues: “To me that highlights the point; we do keep all of our old machines going when we should be buying new equipment to be more competitive, more productive, and more efficient.”

Of course there are examples where this has happened and Wilson points to the automotive sector where the last few years has seen significant investment in advanced automation technologies, resulting in vast improvements in productivity. And ultimately, that investment has lead to more jobs. Wilson points specifically to JLR, where he feels that had investment in robots not taken place, the manufacturing would have moved out of the UK. “It’s about investing in the technology to make us more efficient, so we can then grow and employ more people,” he summarises.

The rest of UK manufacturing really does need to heed the example set by the automotive sector if it is to remain competitive on the world stage and really, there has never been a better time to invest. Apart from the well documented benefits of automation in terms of productivity, there is also the added financial incentive offered by the Annual Investment Allowance, which was increased last year from £200,000 to £1m, meaning businesses can invest up to £1m annually in qualifying ‘plant and machinery’ assets and obtain 100% tax relief. You do need to be quick to take advantage of this though, as the scheme is to due finish on 1st January 2021!

Recognising innovation

Later this year, CDA is holding its first Smart Process Implementation Awards. Celebrating those companies taking the lead when it comes to digitalisation, smart technology use, connectivity and Industry 4.0, the awards will take place at the Houses of Parliament - what this space for further details of how to enter. Limited sponsorship opportunities are available. For details please contact rdye@western-bp.co.uk

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Release the robot potential! 14/01/2020

Despite the emphatic Conserative win in the recent general election and talked-about flurry of contracts given the go-ahead in the immediate aftermath of the outcome, things still do not seem to be looking particularly rosey in the the UK industrial sector, with economists warning that the long term picture for the economy continues to be one of relative weakness. Of course, these are unprecedented times and I’m not going to pretend I understand all, if any, of the contributing factors, but coming at the issue from CDA-centric point of view, I feel that one thing is certain - if the UK is remain competitive in the global economy it must invest in increased automation.

Worryingly, the latest national Manufacturing Barometer report reveals that just 16% of UK SME manufacturing businesses have adopted robots, with another 13% saying they plan to start using them - but even worse it s that over 70% have no plans, or are unsure about, introducing robots!

Published by SWMAS and partner Economic Growth Solutions, the study also highlights a sector experiencing its toughest quarter in a decade. More SME manufacturers report a reduction in sales, profits and staff numbers than recorded in any period across the last ten years. And some 44% of businesses experienced a fall in profits in the last quarter – 10% more than in the previous three months.

Simon Howes, MD of SWMAS, authors of the report, said: “With both Brexit and a potential change in government causing ongoing uncertainty the Manufacturing Barometer shows manufacturers are finding their ability to recruit, invest and increase sales is ever more restricted. So, finding technological solutions is increasingly important.

“And there is an opportunity to do more with robots: you can see this in the government’s Industrial Strategy, the continuing drive to increase productivity, and the need to find new ways to operate with fewer staff.

“Although the UK ranks as the 8th largest industrial nation, we are 22nd in the global league of robot adoption – we must ask why that is, and this is what we set out to explore in our study of the UK’s SME manufacturing sector.

“Three important things came out of our research. The first is the simple truth that so few SME manufacturers in the UK are using robots in their businesses. Secondly, a belief that low volume, variable or difficult to handle products make robots unviable. Thirdly, more than one third of SME manufacturers who do not use robots are unsure if their competitors do, raising questions around awareness of what is actually possible for them.”

He continues: "We call on manufacturers to look again at robots and at how their competitors are using them. We also ask robot suppliers to look specifically at SME manufacturers’ concerns and provide better awareness of the latest solutions.

"It also seems to be true, as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy highlights, that a lack of awareness around robots is harming the productivity of businesses, particularly for SMEs.

“For the potential of robots to be realised, the UK’s SME manufacturers need much better awareness, tailored advice and flexible support to help them plan and integrate robots into their businesses - this is a huge challenge, but one we can overcome.” 

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Let's work together 22/10/2019

Although not a particularly new soundbite, the trope that ‘data is the new oil’ seems to be more and more frequently referred to.

This isn’t really surprising as data is the driving force behind many of today’s transformative technologies; just think about AI, automation and the latest predictive maintenance. And like oil, data needs to be refined to realise its full value, and it is often at this point that organisations can become somewhat stuck - intelligent devices are providing unprecedented access to data, but what good is the data if you don’t know what to do with it?

Enter the data scientist; a new breed of analytical data expert, or dare I say, statistician, with the technical skills to solve complex problems. So, looking at the engineering sector, which is experiencing a dearth of skilled individuals, maybe the data scientist could help fill the gap? After all, the data scientist and the engineer will often have many common skills.

Well, this isn't necessarily such a great idea, according to Professor Andrew Ball, an expert in the field of diagnostic engineering. Speaking at the recent 2019 Condition Monitoring and Diagnostic Engineering Conference (COMADEM) he warned against recent claims that the future of predictive maintenance should be led by data science, and not engineers.

Professor Ball, who co-chaired the conference, told delegates that the separate techniques of detecting, diagnosing, assessing the severity and prognosis of machine faults require engineering expertise and context to achieve the accuracy and timely results demanded in the field of predictive maintenance.

“I have attended conferences recently where speakers have talked about purely data-driven approaches to predictive maintenance, with no concept of what engineering really needs,” he told his audience.

Professor Ball stressed that successful interventions could only be achieved by engineers and data scientists working together.

“Data-driven methods are truly excellent for identifying patterns and anomalies in large, complex data sets, and warn us when to undertake fault diagnosis, location and severity assessments,” he said, “but the latter steps cannot be achieved using data-driven methods alone. Predictive maintenance is an engineering discipline. One that can be significantly assisted by data science, but only if they work together.”

It is vitally important to get this balance right. Predictive maintenance has huge potential benefits, but users do need to get it right in order for these to be attained and there really is no better alternative than an experienced engineer in bringing this about.

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Funding crisis on the horizon? 21/06/2019

The partners of the Horizon 2020 SOMA Consortium recently announced the end of their highly acclaimed project to advance the state-of-the-art robotic manipulation capabilities for industry.

As part of the venture, UK technology and engineering pioneer, Ocado has been working in partnership Europe’s leading robotic researchers, academics and scientists from the Technische Universität Berlin, Ocado, the University of Pisa, IIT - Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR, the German Aerospace Center), and the Institute of Science and Technology Austria.

The traditional approach to robotic grasping and in-hand manipulation uses rigid hands and considers the object’s environment as an obstacle. Traditional research focused on exploring ways to grasp an object without coming into contact with its surroundings.

The SOMA project marks a paradigm shift in approach by using soft hands that can easily adapt to the shape of the object, and leverage the physical constraints of the environment as opportunities to guide manipulation. This fundamental change in approach was inspired by the ways in which humans use their hands.

“The thousands of trials we performed clearly demonstrated that humans grasp and manipulate objects in very different ways from how roboticists had imagined for 50 years. This research inspired us to use soft, compliant hands and to actively exploit the environment in much the same way that humans do. Today, SOMA hands can perform robust grasping in dynamic, open, and highly variable environments without having to rely on a very accurate perception of the system, or the geometric CAD model of the object,” said Professor Oliver Brock, Head of the Robotics and Biology Laboratory, Technische Universität Berlin.

Horizon 2020 is the EU’s biggest ever research and innovation programme, with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment that this money will attract. The UK has secured €5.1 billion of funding to date (14.3% of the total). Taking great ideas from the lab to the market, it promises breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts. Coupling research and innovation, Horizon 2020 is helping to achieve sustainable growth with its emphasis on excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal challenges.

The UK and EU’s intention is that the eligibility of UK researchers and businesses to participate in Horizon 2020 will remain unchanged for the remaining duration of the programme. This has been agreed as part of the Financial Settlement which was signed-off by both UK and European Commission negotiators in a draft Withdrawal Agreement. In the event of a ‘no deal’ scenario, the UK’s departure from the EU would mean UK organisations may be unable to access funding for Horizon 2020 projects after exit day.

Of course, when Horizon 2020 comes to an end next year, whatever the scheme that moves into its place, the UK will have no participation. It’s not even the funding that is the biggest issue here (although I can’t see the UK government stepping up to the mark in terms of financial support by any stretch of the imagination), it’s the fact that the best and most innovative UK companies and institutions will not have the same easy opportunities to work with their EU counterparts on such projects. A lose-lose situation all round.

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Watch this space 16/04/2019

When is comes to the space sector, while it might be NASA with its Mars Rovers and planet-hunting probes, or Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its Falcon Heavy megarocket that grab the headlines, the contribution made by the UK’s space industry should not be underestimated. Indeed, the sector has seen significant growth in income, exports and employment in recent years, with total income now standing at £14.8 billion.

The sector employs 41,900 people, while exports are worth £5.5 billion. Much of this growth is due to space manufacturing, including satellites, ground systems and components. The UK has significant capabilities in this area, building major parts for one in four of the world’s commercial telecommunications satellites and the wider benefits are considerable.

A recent report carried out by London Economics on behalf of the UK Space Agency has found that every £1 of public spending generates £3-4 in value for the recipients in the space industry, with additional wider spillover benefits to the UK economy.

The demanding environment of space means that investments  generate new knowledge and innovations that extend far beyond the space industry. For example, satellites provide services that enable a wide range of economic activities, supporting industries worth £300b to the UK.

The “Spillovers in the space sector report” looks at programmes such as ExoMars, a mission to search for life on Mars, with the UK leading the build of the ‘Rosalind Franklin’ Mars rover. The project developed advanced welding techniques that are now being used to manufacture aluminium cans, saving 12% on raw materials, or £100m in total.

Potential spilllovers include the development of buggies for airport transport which could contribute £10m to UK GDP and navigation sensors in areas with no access to satellite positioning and navigation technologies, which could contribute £7.2m to UK GDP.

Less positive though is the effect that Brexit could have on the UK’s space industry, as explored in a new report from The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy (CSPS), “What Brexit Means for UK Space Leadership”.

“Brexit will almost certainly create an inflection point for the UK space sector,” said Jamie Morin, executive director of CSPS. “In the aftermath of the referendum, the British government has reviewed its activities in space, and the process has moved entities such as the UK Space Agency and the Ministry of Defence to coordinate more tightly than they have in the past. Regardless of Brexit’s outcome, the UK can take considered, deliberate steps that benefit its space sector, including expanding the capacity of its space agency.”

We can but hope.
 

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Automation gets a bad press - again 04/02/2019

There is a problem here in the UK with the way some of the mainstream media portrays robotics and automation. Take for example the Sun’s recent coverage of the latest wearable safety technology being rolled out to warehouse workers at 25+ sites belonging to online giant, Amazon.

The Amazon Robotics-designed Robotic Tech Vest has been devised to protect workers when they need to enter a space usually reserved for automated systems in order to action a repair or retrieve fallen items. Sensors built into the Tech Vest, which looks something like a souped-up utility belt, alert the automated systems to a wearer’s presence, which then down to avoid collision and potential injury. The system works in tandem with existing obstacle avoidance detection.

As part of it’s article “Amazon built an electronic vest to improve worker/robot interactions” US online publisher TechCrunch quoted Amazon Robotics VP, Brad Porter: “All of our robotic systems employ multiple safety systems ranging from training materials, to physical barriers to entry, to process controls, to on-board.

“In the past, associates would mark out the grid of cells where they would be working in order to enable the robotic traffic planner to smartly route around that region. What the vest allows the robots to do is detect the human from farther away and smartly update its travel plan to steer clear without the need for the associate to explicitly mark out those zones.”

Now contrast this with the Sun, which kicked off with the headline “Amazon factory workers forced to wear hi-tech belts to stop robots killing them”. Apart from not appearing to be able to differentiate between a production facility and a warehouse, rather than conveying the message that the Tech Vest is a positive development designed to enhance established levels of safety for workers, the article talks about “metal bots” being a “serious threat to humans”. Of course, there are safety risks in just about every industrial environment, automated or not, but to infer that an automated environment poses a bigger risk simply by nature of it being automated is misleading.

And rather than simply covering the technology, the article goes on to talk of robots taking the place of blue collar jobs, the ‘dark side’ of I4.0, Elon Musk asserting that Telsa over-automated in the creation of the new Model 3, and reports that the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no standards for robotics industry. All in all, it can hardly be considered positive coverage.

OK, the Sun isn’t exactly known for giving a balanced view on anything it covers, so you might ask why should it matter if its overall message on automation is less than positive? After all, as a reader of CDA, you are surely more well versed in the advantages. Well, if the UK was investing adequately in automation, it wouldn’t be an issue. But the stark reality is that the UK continues to lag way behind its fellow developed economies in terms of industrial robot use, indeed Bank of England economist, Will Abel, described British automation as "pretty rubbish”, going on to say that  "below average" use of robotics is leading to a higher proportion of GDP going to the labour force.

And while negative news stories citing killer robots coming for everyone’s jobs are certainly not the only reason the UK fails to invest in automation, they definitely don’t matters, so maybe it’s time some of  mainstream media took a step away from the sensationalist headlines in favour of a more balanced view.

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Essential up-skilling 11/12/2018

With the engineer recruitment crisis continuing seemingly unabated and, in all probability, Brexit exacerbating the situation, the need to encourage more young people to study STEM subjects and subsequently pursue a corresponding career has been widely acknowledged. Whether or not such efforts ultimately prove a success remains to be seen, but in the meantime employers in the industrial sector could do much worse than to look at their existing workforces and make sure that they are achieving to

According to new research by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, UK manufacturers will have to raise their game to use their shrinking workforce better and smarter to cope in an ever-changing world of automated technologies. Business leaders will have to be more innovative in their use of the existing employees by implementing retraining schemes in key development areas such as AI and digital innovation. This must be done at speed to combat the shrinking talent pool.

Initiating a proper workforce plan - which analyses employees’ skills and where they can be used to best effect – ensures the best use of available human capital. This will become ever more important in the face of increased restrictions on EU workers post-Brexit, according to EEF’s report Reinventing the Manufacturing Workforce. A properly thought out workforce plan also helps identify those employees which will benefit most from the opportunity to retrain and up-skill in the latest digital technologies.

However only 32% of manufacturers surveyed had a workforce plan (a plan with measurable actions that align the changing needs of the business with their people strategy) in place, while almost two-thirds (64%) did not.

The report reveals that 69% of those surveyed said that the adoption of new technologies and techniques is driving the priorities of their workforce plan, while nearly half (44%) said that the introduction of new products is the main driver for change in workforce practices.

To prepare to secure the skills they need for the future a heartening 72% of businesses revealed that they are introducing or continuing to run formal apprenticeships, while half (48%) are revising their recruitment strategy to recruit workers from other industries and sectors with transferable skills.

Others are introducing or continuing with popular graduate programmes to grab the best potential talent while just over a quarter (26%) are revising their workforce plan.

Flexible ways of working have already been adopted by all but 15% of manufacturers to non-production employees and 7% to their production employees, which has helped to retain existing employees (74%) and also attract prospective employees (56%).

So, while the news isn't all bad, there is still significant room for improvement, which should not be ignored in these turbulent times.

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Manufacturing at increased risk of cyber attacks 09/10/2018

It seems that cyber crime is never far from the headlines, once again hitting the front-pages recently when Dutch military intelligence thwarted a Russian cyber-attack on the headquarters of the international chemical weapons watchdog. While such incidents rightly gain much press coverage, it is important to remember that cyber security is important across the board and not just in matters of international security.

In its 2018 Spotlight Report on Manufacturing, leader in AI-powered cyberattack detection and threat hunting, Vectra, highlights that that the manufacturing industry exhibits higher-than-normal rates of cyberattack-related reconnaissance and lateral movement activity. This is due, asserts the company, to the rapid convergence of enterprise information technology and operational technology networks in manufacturing organisations. In other words, the adoption of IIoT and Industry 4.0 related technologies.

As part of key findings in the new 2018 Spotlight Report on Manufacturing, Vectra revealed that attackers who evade perimeter security can easily spy, spread and steal, unhindered by insufficient internal access controls.

In addition to the physical disruption that a cyber attack on a manufacturing  or process facility undoubtedly has the potential to inflict, intellectual property theft and business disruption are additional primary reasons why manufacturers have become prime targets for cybercriminals.

Other key findings include a much higher volume of malicious internal behaviours, which is a strong indicator that attackers are already inside the network; an unusually high volume of reconnaissance behaviours, which is a strong indicator that attackers are mapping out manufacturing networks in search of critical assets; and an abnormally high level of lateral movement, which is a strong indicator that the attack is proliferating inside the network.

“The interconnectedness of Industry 4.0-driven operations, such as those that involve industrial control systems, along with the escalating deployment of industrial internet-of-things (IIoT) devices, has created a massive, attack surface for cybercriminals to exploit,” said Chris Morales, head of security analytics at Vectra.

So, even if you haven’t experienced a cyber attack yet, the chances are that it won’t be long before you do. In the light of this, there is really is no excuse for not having a cyber security strategy in place, no matter what the size of your business. For those in the manufacturing sector wanting to know more, there is plenty of advice available; a good place to start for a brief overview is is the National Cyber Security Centre's 'Making Sense of cyber secuirty in OT environments', which can be found at ncsc.gov.uk/guidance/operational-technologies

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Is Industry 4.0 good for your health? 16/08/2018

There’s no doubt that the increased automation which comes about with Industry 4.0 is well and truly on the radar in the manufacturing sector. And with increased automation comes the need to develop health and safety strategies accordingly.

At the XXI World Congress on Safety and Health in Singapore, Secretary General of the International Social Security Association (ISSA), Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, asked a large audience of international safety practitioners whether the 4th industrial revolution will be good or bad for worker’s health and safety. Overwhelmingly the answer that came back was that yes, ultimately the changing world of work will be good for our health and wellbeing. However, there are also many challenges to navigate, and while regular readers will probably be well versed in the physical health and safety challenges thrown up by automation, they are less likely to have considered the potential risks to people’s mental well being.

Research by IPPR says that 10 million jobs are at risk from automation in the UK – something that is bound to play on people’s minds. When health and safety practitioners were asked about future risks of work, the health advantages of automating certain hazardous processes (for example the increasing use of automated riveting or 3D printing) – and by implication the removal of people - were uppermost in their minds, along with modern, flexible ways of working where people are adding specific value to automated processes.

However, it's not all so positive. A likely development is that people and intelligent machines will increasingly become ‘colleagues’ in the future, glimpses of which can already been seen in the proliferation of collaborative robots to hit the mark in recent years. As the British Safety Council points out, a colleague who can work without breaks, who is always ‘on,’ who isn’t going to share much ‘social’ information, is a very different colleague; a relationship that could easily create stress and undermine well being.

We also know that people at work derive important health benefits from the social nature of work and this will be an issue to address in the future. Evidence also tells us that the health benefits of ‘good’ work, whether we define this in terms of good employment practices, reward and recognition or fulfilling jobs, can be either enhanced or undermined by disruptive technologies, asserts the British Safety Council.

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PROFILE

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.