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Buying automation with confidence

Author : Paige West, Group Editor

30 July 2021

There is mounting pressure on manufacturers to increase throughput, run times, and provide safer working conditions – as a result, the adoption of industrial robots is increasing. During a recent roundtable, hosted by Paige West, Editor of Connectivity at the IML Group, a panel of BARA representatives and industry experts discussed developing the business case for automation and choosing the appropriate suppliers and applications.

Shutterstock image
Shutterstock image

The session kicked off with a very important question: What are the major challenges faced by new automation users and why? Part of the challenge is that companies don’t understand what they can automate. A lot of leaders are comfortable with the way their factories are running and they haven’t got the knowledge or skills to look at how they could do it differently – which would actually improve their processes. 

The panellists agreed that confidence is one of the biggest barriers. Having the confidence to  procure a solution is really challenging because most people get bogged down with information – mainly, with whom do I partner? A good partner is key when investing in automation, but there are a lot of integrators out there. It’s all about having the confidence to take that first step and reach out to potential partners. 

Two of the panellists spoke about the challenges their companies faced when first looking to automate. Phil Rawnson, Managing Director, MRT Castings – an aluminium diecasting foundry and CNC machining specialist – said: “It can be quite overwhelming when you start to get into automation. What comes first? Do you talk to the machine manufacturers, the robot guys or the integrators?” He went on to speak about how MRT Castings partnered with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) which worked with the company to take an independent, holistic view of what automation processes it could implement most effectively. Adam Vicary, Chief Executive, Castings PLC – an iron casting and machining group – said: “It’s often difficult to make a business case for automation – the investment that’s required doesn’t always appear to have a sensible payback. However, having journeyed into automation, it’s actually more beneficial than you could originally quantify, and we are much more confident.”

Questions then began to focus on suppliers and what a beginner should be looking for when procuring one. Rosie Davies, Commercial Director at RMGroup UK – which specialises in the supply and manufacture of process and packaging machinery, including robotic automation – gave us her thoughts: “A lot of research needs to be done prior to investment, to size up the integrator. It’s useful, if possible, to be able to view examples of the system you’re looking at adopting and speak to someone who has experience with the integrator you’re considering, to see how they delivered the project.”

The focus then turned to how newcomers can help their suppliers and what sort of questions they are expected to answer. Mostafa ElSayed, Co-founder and CEO of Automata Technologies – a London-based technology company working to democratise robotics for SMEs and the consumer market – said, “The first thing we try to understand is where they are in their decision-making process – what are you looking to improve? Surprisingly, it’s hard to get an answer! Once we have that, it becomes about how much they understand their process and whether or not they know where the automation opportunities lie.”

Government support was a big topic for the panellists with the main question being whether or not the Government is doing enough to help promote automation in the UK. 

Mike Wilson, Chief Automation Officer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), shared his thoughts: “There is still an issue with politicians in terms of the fear surrounding robots and unemployment but there’s been a lot of cases which demonstrate that the opposite is true. We are getting some support, but I wouldn’t say it’s specifically aimed at automation and robotics. For example, the Government is supporting Made Smarter which helps businesses to adopt digital technologies, including automation and robotics, and there are also enhanced capital allowances that help businesses buy capital equipment – including automation and robotics.”

One of the main issues is that UK companies tend to be quite risk adverse. Especially more mature businesses, who like to see proof that someone else has implemented automation successfully. However, they need to start thinking longer-term.

The Made Smarter Adoption Pilot in the North West was Government’s attempt to encourage more companies to adopt digital technology and it’s designed to find the triggers that help companies make that step change. Donna Edwards, Managing Director for The Growth Company and the North West Director of the Made Smarter Adoption Programme, said, “We’ve helped companies create around 800 jobs over the last two and a half years as a result of adopting digital technology and we’ve helped upskill around 1800 members of staff to enable them to work with this technology.”

Watch the full roundtable to hear thoughts on the impact of Brexit & COVID-19 on the automation market, robots and energy efficiency, sourcing integrators, and key advice for those looking to automate for the first time: 

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