22 March, 2018

Special 21st Anniversary Report - Eventful journey

12 December, 2017

we need this to be monitored and auditable for a standardised global production model.”

Cuthbert considers cost, acceptance, availability to be some of the key changes with regard to automation technology. “In Webtec, we’ve invested in machine tool automation & robotic pallet loading on four occasions over the last 20 years,” he explained, adding that each time the technology has got better, faster, more flexible, and that has given Webtec a significant productivity improvement. “This has helped us to both have additional capacity from lights-out manufacture as well as increased flexibility to introduce new custom products,” he said.

Overall, Cuthbert believes the UK still massively lags Germany for investment in automation. “Germany has more than four times as many robots per employee as the UK, but I sense in the next five years we could see quite a change in the UK,” he said. “Certainly, within Webtec, we have exciting plans to introduce further automation in assembly, machining and administration to mention just a few. Everyone thinks of automation as robots, but smart software can massively improve productivity of administration. For example, eight years ago we introduced mass document printing, emailing & archiving and our PO and Invoice administration went down from hours per week to minutes. Since then, we have made lots of incremental changes to automate administration tasks which over time make a significant difference.”

Further development

How might automation develop over the next two decades? In Cuthbert’s view, the signs are that we will see automation help simplify a job rather than completely replace one; whether that is in terms of robots helping with loading/unloading machines and transporting goods around a factory or providing machine learning so computers volunteer to help with repetitive tasks. “I think we are likely to become increasingly reliant on software that can help spot patterns in large data sets and prompt users to act,” added Cuthbert. “This could be in Sales, Accounts, Manufacturing, R&D or Quality. From a customer’s perspective, I think automation has an important role to play in bridging the skills gap. By that, I mean hydraulic products could start to recommend to the user the best configuration to use, rather than relying on a hydraulic engineer with 30 years’ experience to configure them. These things are all possible today, and we witness this behaviour on websites, on our SatNav’s and when online shopping but they are not yet seen that often in UK factories. As these technologies become cheaper and easier to roll out, there is an enormous opportunity for us to adopt them quickly. This may well favour SMEs like Webtec who can be faster and nimbler to adopt technology where the barrier is no longer cost, but a company’s ability to adapt.”

Buxton believes the next two decades will see an even faster and greater convergence of industrial, military and service robot technology. He also anticipates that processor speed will see greater capacity for more sophisticated robots that can learn from experience and integrate more effectively with their human companions. “However, I don’t see service robots working on assembly lines,” he added. “This wouldn’t make financial sense, but we will see greater prevalence of service robots in the healthcare sector and much wider generic automation with Big Data being well within the grasp of the electronic brains. The march of technology is inexorable – it cannot be stopped and whilst such changes are going to be challenging, ignoring them as oppose to embracing them will be even worse.”

Brooks maintains that OEMs and end users will ultimately have more control as automation systems develop. “Industry 4.0 is

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