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Editor's Pick


Accelerating technological developments

04 January 2024

FESTO UK head of operations, Swapnil Khedekar, takes a look at what the UK automation market can expect in 2024.

I see some strong prospects for UK automation in 2024, but many external factors could upset a good year. In the face of continued uncertainty, businesses must carve their own path, creating our own future. For me, this means investing in the right areas: not just developing new products but also investing in people, processes and how we address the market and support customers.

State of the markets

Individual industry sectors have their own cycles that will influence demand for automation in the coming year. For example, the automotive sector is currently increasing investment as it transitions to electric vehicles (EVs). However, this is not entirely good from an automation perspective because the assembly of electric powertrains is far simpler than the internal combustion engine.

There is also uncertainty around related emerging markets such as lithium-ion battery production. Li-ion battery production in the UK has an uncertain future and the network of giga factories envisaged by our government is slow to materialise. China currently dominates the global Li-ion battery production and has stepped up capacity enormously, meaning it has the ability not only to supply its domestic market but increasingly the European market too. The USA has responded with massive subsidies through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). This has had the impact of shoring up US domestic battery production and swaying external investment away from Europe toward the USA. All of which leaves UK OEMs with a very small domestic market in which to develop their machine building capacity to open and address the EV battery sector.

The semi-conductor/electronics sector has always fluctuated. Fabrication production cycles are extremely long, and the pandemic initiated a demand drop followed by a sharp rise that took more than twelve months to respond to.  Production then overshot dramatically, and we are now in a phase of over-supply and reduced investment. The sector will come back but given other global issues it is hard to know when.

Life sciences was another sector that made a step change during the pandemic. Laboratory automation made enormous strides in fields like sample diagnosis and drug discovery. There has been a degree of stabilisation following the intense periods of virtual panic buying of equipment during the pandemic but the learning from that time has made a forever change to the industry and there are many opportunities within the life-tech sector for the automated handling and testing of samples with high and verifiable throughput.  This is an exciting development area for the automation sector for 2024 and beyond.

People perspective

On the people front, the UK automation sector is facing an experience drain through retirement and challenges in recruiting replacement skilled talent. Businesses need to redress the balance with a development program linked to longer term succession planning. This includes bringing on-board a diverse range of young people through multiple routes such as technical apprenticeships, internships and closer links with academia.

Increasingly rapid technological developments also mean businesses must take existing employees on their own personal development journeys up and cross skilling e.g., mechanical to electrical, electrical to controls and controls to software. At Festo we have managed to align our recruitment and development programs with existing staff retirement plans: meaning for the first time in many years we have a full workforce.  It is a dynamic situation, but we have a plan and its working.

Technology developments

Sustainability in production and use is a critical factor for our long-term future and 2024 is likely to continue the trends towards reducing environmental impacts. As the relative cost of micro-controllers, sensors, displays and software becomes cheaper, it makes their integration into electric drives and actuators more attractive, offering a genuine alternative where pneumatics doesn’t make financial or environmental sense.

To support this trend, Festo is introducing new ways for the users of our automation equipment to select and operate it in the most efficient way possible.  We are creating a higher degree of transparency of CO2 used in the manufacture of the components that our customers buy and the air consumption through their operation using online tools. These are applied during the selection process and through the creation of relevant environmental documentation using digital twins. Integration of the many separate drawings, documents and manuals into a structured, machine-readable package that can be linked to the application will enable application-specific loads, machine cycles and cycle rates to be applied to derive the CO2 consumption, enabling machine life-time optimised designs.

Business trends

Simplification is a key business driver for 2024. Adding the power of electronics and software to traditional mechanics offers increased flexibility and performance, but it can also bring complexity. We need to reduce complexity for the industrial user – as smart phones have done for consumers. Simplifying the connectivity of so-called smart devices reduces the barriers for inexperienced users and accelerates the deployment of new technologies. Making things simpler is not easy but it has to be our future.

Continuing along the path of open platform technologies is another priority – offering foundation products that are lower in cost and can be manufactured in extremely high, but fluctuating volumes. Building on these foundations, Festo are increasingly offering the ability to add flexibility, closed loop control and communications. Our latest valve terminals are a perfect example. The next step is to add the ability to upgrade the software functionality, for example providing preventative and predictive maintenance either through simple counting and monitoring or with added artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Investing in our infrastructure and facilities is another focus for 2024. We want to better support our customers to be aware of and to understand the latest automation technology developments, and how they can apply them to their businesses. More than ever before, successful automation involves using the right medium at the right time: for example, we are seeing a new online/offline balance with our website, with our sales and application support visits and in our Didactic training division.

Achieving physical-digital balance

Post COVID, there is an interesting challenge around how much business to conduct online and how much customers still value physical meetings and product demonstrations. In 2023 Festo made the big step of investing in, and managing the transition to, a new global enterprise IT system. We now have the latest, globally unified version of SAP, providing a platform to manage our increasing number of global manufacturing and distribution centres.  Both environmentally and commercially, we wanted to achieve shorter delivery times by increasing ‘manufacturing in the region, for the region’ whilst having the advantage of accessing multiple production sites to manage demand peaks and reduce supply chain bottlenecks caused by local issues.

We coined our website FOX, short for Festo Online eXperience, to make the distinction from the earlier website. We wanted it to be more than an online shop window and buying till and 2024 will reveal its true potential. FOX can supply designers with the tools to quickly design a system based on the application requirements, to simulate its performance and to supply all the technical documentation for clicking and dragging into systems such as EPLAN. The availability of Digital Twins will become more common, supplying not just the drawings and catalogue data but performance characteristics, and supplying the basis for complete machine life cycle documentation all the way through to re-purposing equipment or providing instructions for recycling.

However, it is also clear that customers still value the physical experience of discussing applications with specialists, seeing the products, and physically handling them. Online consultation is not enough so we are continuing to invest both in increasing onsite customer visits and in our display and application support facilities in Northampton for customers to come to us. Product application support is important for getting our customers’ applications up and running faster and with less stress. For replicating applications, we are investing in developing our core engineering capabilities, supporting the project management of complex, multi-disciplinary applications as well as providing the support tools such as rapid prototyping and 3D printing capabilities.

Another step change that came about because of the Covid pandemic is to our training division, Festo Didactic. When face-to-face training was impossible, our online learning LX portal came to the fore. Today this is an exciting part of the training mix and the online material will continue to expand and mature in the coming months. It stands alongside the more established physical training rigs and modular production systems for training our own people and our customers.


We cannot prevent uncertainty, but we can plan for it and ensure we make the best of it. Technological developments are accelerating, and the world of automation is far from mature and static. We are breaking new ground in the use of artificial intelligence, the roll-out of digital twins and the launch of new pneumatic platform technologies that will power growth for more than the next ten years.

We need to ensure we have the right people, trained, and motivated to support these exciting developments. The UK government has issued its plans about improving technical and academic education for 16–18-year-olds with the Advanced British Standard. It has also published its strategy for Advanced Manufacturing and UK battery production, but will today’s ministers be in power to execute them? Personally, I feel these issues are too important for the UK economy to be reliant on political swings and changes. Meantime we had better continue planning our own path!