22 March, 2018

Special 21st Anniversary Report - Eventful journey

12 December, 2017

This issue of Hydraulics & Pneumatics marks its 21st anniversary. To celebrate this milestone, a number of prominent spokespeople within the fluid power and wider motion control sectors consider some of the key technological, political and legislative changes that have come to pass over the past two decades.

The fluid power and related equipment and systems industry is in a state of constant development; adapting to the needs of the end user and OEM, as well as keeping up with legislative changes concerning areas such as environmental responsibility and health & safety. Since its inception back in 1996, Hydraulics & Pneumatics magazine’s core brief has always been to report on and reflect these changes, and this has never been more so now that the fluid power industry is increasingly playing a major part within the wider and fast-evolving motion control and robotics sphere. To celebrate the journal’s eventful journey over the years, we invited key figures from our industry to offer their views on key areas of development over the past two decades or so.

In the beginning

However, to kick-off the proceedings, Bob Dobson, the journal’s launch editor, briefly takes us back to the time leading up to the launch of this long-serving publication: “I felt like a great she-elephant at the launch of Hydraulics & Pneumatics in 1996 – the gestation period was that long. We had had the idea for the magazine several years earlier, but could never get enough time together to develop a proper business plan and put the necessary wheels into motion.

“My colleagues and I were actually on the point of launching another magazine to complement our existing title Drives & Controls in about 1990, and fluid power, hydraulics and pneumatics, seemed like the best field to address. At this time the economy had turned very sour after the oh-so brief Thatcherite boom and the engineering industries were looking very sad. Most publishers were pulling in their horns, but we took the view that a low-key launch and tight financial management would put us in pole position for when the economy picked up again.

“But then a big-time publisher addressed the financial situation in a very dramatic way. Robert Maxwell disembarked from the back of his luxury yacht in mid-Atlantic. This affected us because one very small corner of his business empire was an exhibition called Drives Motors & Controls (DMC). We had worked in close co-operation with this show for the best part of ten years, and when its closure was announced we had some serious and immediate thinking to do.

Learning curve

“With DMC gone, we had no choice but to launch our own show, Drives & Controls, to protect our market from competitors. We knew nothing about running exhibitions, but it was sink or swim for us – and there were plenty of sharks circling. Almost unbelievably, the show was a rip-roaring success from Day One and we found ourselves on a rollercoaster learning curve that didn’t slow down for about five years as the show grew and grew.

“By the mid-1990s the economy was recovering, but many engineers were convinced that fluid power was in its death throes with electrical alternatives ready to replace it. Our view was different – fluid power was evolving; there was too much going on for it to be in danger. Rodless pneumatic cylinders had found their niche, electronics was coming in, and so was software. Non-lube air was becoming the norm, valves were getting smaller, faster and more efficient, valve islands were redefining systems architecture; no electric system could match the sheer muscle of hydraulics. It seemed to us a brilliant time to launch Hydraulics & Pneumatics.

“With the momentous decision made, the launch went relatively smoothly. We had the publishing expertise and the journalistic knowledge; we knew most of the potential advertisers and had a database of potential readers. Of course, there were long nights and mad panics, setbacks, despair and despondency, but these were minor problems all quickly overcome, and the first issue came out on time and to budget.”

Over two decades later, Hydraulics & Pneumatics continues to thrive under the editorial helm of Ed Holden, who has been in the hot seat since September 2005. The journal, along with Drives & Controls magazine and exhibition of the same name, came under the stewardship of DFA Media Ltd. following a management buyout in 2004. This was followed by the launch of the Air-Tech exhibition in 2006 and, more recently, Fluid Power & Systems in 2014. Other complementary co-located shows have also flourished under the DFA Media umbrella.

Changing landscape

So, what have been some of the most notable areas of development within the fluid power and related equipment and systems industry over the past 20 years or so? Chris Buxton, CEO of the BFPA, makes the point that fluid power is a very mature technology and, to this extent, has exemplified a fairly steady state for a number of years. However, he observes that with the advent of digitalisation and the ‘fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0)’, the convergence with electrical controls and drives manifest as integrated systems have become very apparent over the past five years or so, and customers are now talking about generic motion control using whatever technology is most appropriate. “The solution is usually a combination of both fluid power and electromechanical systems,” he said. “At the very least, we are seeing electrical control of hydraulic and pneumatic systems.”

Andreas Kling, product marketing manager at Eaton, draws our attention to key areas of development such as traditional components being made smarter, and smart machines with better control connecting to the Internet of Things and telematics. “There is a need for a high integration of sensors to the traditional components, so at Eaton we are increasingly engineering electro proportional valves, and digital valves all with connectivity to enable them to communicate with the machine,” explained Kling. He is also seeing more compact machines being launched, and believes there is therefore an ever-increasing need for high pressure solutions (close loop applications up to 500 bar).

Martin Cuthbert, managing director of Webtec, commented that Webtec is involved in hydraulic measurement and in hydraulic control, so from a measurement point of view the movement of technology – in terms of the accessibility, awareness, reliability and cost – has all stepped forward quite a long way over the past two decades or so. “When we brought out our first data loggers in the late 1990s they were large devices with memory measured in kilobytes of data rather than the gigabytes of data available on our modern devices,” explained Cuthbert. “The ease of use of the devices has greatly improved, and the ability to communicate with the devices would previously have been through an RS 232 serial port whereas now it is USB or wireless. There is also now a greater awareness of the value and importance of datalogging. Customers now are collecting and analysing more data and so are preventing many more faults before they occur than they would have done back in the late 1990s. Of course, there are still some companies that run machinery to failure and haven't yet changed their mentality with regard to maintenance, but the technology is available if they care to take a look.”

Flexibility and configurability

Steve Sands, head of marketing and product management at Festo, has witnessed several dramatic changes during the past two decades. “From a technology point of view, we have added the option of electronic-based control, intelligence and communication across the actuators, valves and air supply functions,” he said. “Production has been streamed to allow high-volume optimised production costs on one hand and highly flexible, customisable and configurable products on another.”

David Hambrook, managing director of Glenthorpe Engineering Co Ltd., believes the utilisation of servo motors & encoders to replace some of the fluid power solutions has been one of the key technological developments over the past few years.

With regard to compressed air equipment, Roy Brooks, technical development officer at the British Compressed Society (BCAS), made the point that although the basis of the technologies is still the same and the designs have been based on sound and proven engineering over many decades, today’s products continue to evolve and offer more energy efficient, compact, low maintenance and reliable solutions. “This fits the needs of the 21st Century for lightweight but durable solutions,” he said.

Andy Jones, managing director at Mattei, commented that the improved efficiency of electric motors and, of course, the arrival of variable speed drives for compressors, have been at the forefront of changes with air compressors. He added that, more recently, permanent magnet motors have also been assisting with energy efficiency improvement. “But it hasn’t all been about energy, as there has also been an increasing focus on ensuring lowest cost of ownership over the last few years in particular,” he said. “This is becoming ever more crucial; therefore, compressor reliability and lower servicing costs are also important.”

Stefan Gunter, sales director at Abdex believes being flexible and considering new products is always critical to not getting left behind. “We always maintain close relationships with our suppliers to ensure that we have information on all the latest products,” he explained. Gunter also made the point that because many distributors operate on low margins it is important for manufacturers to support their distributors in the most effective way possible. He sees it as teamwork.

Total cost of ownership

Andrew Power, Northern/Eastern European and CIS regional manager at Gardner Denver, believes the key drivers over the past two decades are an increased focus on the energy efficiency of systems and how this impacts on the total cost of ownership. He made the point that UK industry uses over 20TWh of electricity to compress air each year, equivalent to the output of four power stations and over 8.1 million tonnes of CO2 emissions (Ref: The Carbon Trust, Compressed air: Opportunities for business). “As a result, the emphasis on high-quality energy and performance at a cost-effective price has only increased as a key consideration for businesses over the past two decades,” he said. With BCAS introducing BS ISO 11011 – which has now been adopted as IS ISO 11011 – assessing the energy efficiency of a compressed air technology, Power stressed that overall system performance is now being held to greater account than ever before.

Ken Revell, business line manager sales & marketing for Atlas Copco’s Compressor Technique Service Division, commented that advancement in technology of air element design, inverters and electric motors have made possible huge leaps in energy efficiency of air compressors. “Combine this with accurate control and air generation is controlled more accurately and thus more efficiently,” he remarked. “Once generated, the air can now be distributed throughout the ring with minimal losses, again maximising the system efficiency. When we add up all the advancements in technology we can generate and distribute the air at its highest possible efficiency. This also has other side effects due to reduced leakage, and with more air per KW we can offer smaller compressors to meet the real demand. This can save space in the installation and lead to a reduction in ancillary requirements i.e. smaller ducting, less cooling and smaller Quality Air Solutions equipment.”


How has automation changed within the fluid power and related systems and equipment space over the past couple of decades? “In a huge way,” remarked Hambrook, adding that the price points have become more accessible, and the range of applications that computeried automation now touches is far greater. “Now, a modern machine will replace a number of staff that may have been required 10 to 20 years ago,” he said. “As we move into an era where robotics are what CNC machines were to the preceding 20 years, factories should become less reliant on so many factory staff and will probably move more towards factory machine supervisors; which intern would reduce staff numbers.”

Kling reflected that if one were to write a book about automation, there would be many chapters as the change has been significant. “However, for us it is important to look at the main drivers for the changes such as efficiency, productivity, proactive maintenance and controllability,” he said.

Buxton believes that for many years the UK has lagged behind its overseas competitors in the adoption of automation and robotics with robot density figures (number of robots per 10,000 employees), being behind that of all of our major competitors including Belgium. However, he maintains that this is now changing; not because the technology has changed (which it has), but because the risk aversion and lack of technical understanding among British manufacturers is finally breaking down as a younger more receptive generation are coming through. “The technological changes have been manifested in greater speed, increased processor speed, cooperative robots (or cobots as they are called) and advances in electronic and computer control – not to mention more advanced vision systems,” he said.

Brooks made the point that one only has to look back a few decades to the 1970s to see how automation has changed almost everything we do today. “Manual labour was then, as it is now, a major cost for both manufacturing and service companies manufacturing,” he said. “Automation has facilitated the increase in mass production of everything from food, pharmaceuticals, vehicles and every type of household item. As industry moves forward with Industry 4.0, more will be automated and controlled; not necessarily from work places but also from domestic dwellings.”

Sands considers that there are some exciting areas of simplification. He made the point that tools such as IO-Link have made it easier and simpler to set-up and use more sophisticated sensors. “This has enabled the user to customise devices like flow and pressure sensors to precisely meet their needs, yet in a user friendly and simple way,” he explained.

Revell sees a greater shift towards automation for many reasons. “The need for product consistency is high to comply with ISO standards and conformity to all regulations,” he said. “The IoT and Industry 4.0 is now affording greater information and control over all the processes in manufacturing. The efficiency of automation is also increasing, using less power to deliver faster results. With this need for consistency we are required to deliver the non-fluctuating pressure with constant air quality to the same level – 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 already available, allowing end users and OEMs to determine their usages and requirements,” he said, adding that as AI develops, automation will ultimately dictate some of the consumers’/end users’ own thought processes; for example, whether to opt for driverless and/or all electric cars, or to shop online and have drone deliveries. “From industry’s perspective, self-diagnosis of plant and production equipment will negate the need for expensive callouts of technicians and the unnecessary replacement of parts etc.,” he said.

Sands believes we will continue to see a polarisation; lower cost, standard components to meet the demand for low prices at one end of the market, and at the other a higher technology system approach looking at the total and life time costs to meet the need for pay-per-use and servitisation business models arising out of Industry 4.0. “We are making it considerably easier for our customers to find and select the right products for their application and provide the web-based software to combine and order these parts as a sub-assembly,” he said. “Where more complex systems are involved then we see a vision where all the documentation, calculations and CAE work will be easily combined, and will work seamlessly across platforms to make it faster and easier to generate and maintain documentation throughout a machine’s lifecycle.”

With the demand high for energy efficient products, Littlewood sees PICVs and DPCVs becoming increasingly popular; “not only because they are energy efficient, but because they are also self-acting, and so take away the risk of human error and commissioning; saving people time as well as money”.

Revell commented that the rate of change for automation has the potential to be exponential. “With Industry 4.0, all things will be communicating to ensure complete standardisation, improving product quality and efficient manufacturing processes,” he said. “Whether or not human interface is required in the task, conformity can be measured and thus improved quality consistency can be achieved. The implication of this is the prediction of deviations from the required standards and ensuring the corrective interventions can be implemented prior to an event. The implication to service response is therefore crucial, fast response to events before they occur will become more and more essential to the faultless operation of systems.”

AI – threat or asset?

Picking up on the Artificial Intelligence theme, is AI a threat or an asset to people’s jobs in the workplace? Cuthbert sees AI as an asset, in that it will help users and allow humans to focus on value-added tasks rather than repetitive ones.

Brooks considers that if we educate and train, then humans will always be needed for the workplace. “We all need to develop, and education and training will provide us with the skilled workforce that a future modern economy will require,” he said, adding that having said that, it is worth pointing out that AI is not the full solution.

Buxton’s view is that the march of technology is driven by a goal to improve the lot of mankind and reduce the burden on the working man. “That has always been the case and will continue to be so,” he said. “AI isn’t a threat as long as we harness its enormous potential and make provision for the inevitable impact that it will have on the work force. i.e. there will be a need for greater training in new technologies and perhaps an acceptance that we may have to be paid the same for working less hours. Automation and robotics are inextricably linked to efficiency and productivity. If the robots take up the burden of improving productivity and there is insufficient work for humankind to undertake we will have to have a complete shift in mind set as regards remuneration. I would not be surprised to see a minimum salary for all, but not within the next ten years.”

Hambrook’s take on AI is, as with all things, life moves on. “Just look at the industrial revolution versus today,” he said. “As such, I think it is more about accommodating change and using these innovations to best improve your situation and working environment. In general, younger people are used to embracing change more than the older workforce. However, in the 21st Century I think these attitudes may well even out between the age groups for the better. I think working environments will improve by way of cleaner, safer factories, which are also more efficient. Staff will have more time – and also the modern equipment – to focus on higher quality and broader manufacturing capabilities with the more hazardous and repetitive tasks being given to modern automated machinery. All in all, we are already working smarter than we did 20 years ago due to computerisation, and I feel this will continue to make a step change with AI.”

Kling considers AI almost certainly to be a supplementary asset. “Heavy workloads can be transferred and transformed by robots, and factories are going to become quieter and leaner,” he said, adding that the work is going to become more creative and focused on maintenance and engineering.

Revell is sure the development of AI will indeed reduce the need for certain tasks to be carried out by humans, but he thinks we are some way off of removing the thought processes that drive innovation through creativity and the fast mobility and reaction to change that is unexpected. “This sort of development is understandable for a continuous production line, but there will need to be a lot of development before this can be expanded to bespoke or value-added manufacture,” he said.

Regulatory shifts

With regard to the fluid power and related equipment and systems industry, how have regulations changed over the past two decades? Hambrook draws our attention to the fact that there has been an increased emphasis on machine safety and PPE for a number of years now.

Similarly, Buxton observes that the ever more stringent requirements in terms of health & safety and sustainability are always present, and as technology improves he believes users become better informed and the pressure to improve product quality in these two areas increases. “One of the most obvious areas in this respect is the food industry where CIP regulations were once an obstacle to the use of certain fluid power technology (notably pneumatics) – this is no longer the case as technology stays abreast of these demands,” he said.

Jones commented that legislation has changed to ensure the use of more efficient motors. He explained that these are covered under the new IE standards with IE2 being mandatory since June 2011 improving to IE3 on fixed speed machines with motors from 7.5kW to 375kW since January 2015 and then further extended since January 2017 to cover motors from 0.75 to 375kW. Jones pointed out that Lot 31 is now focusing more and more on the actual efficiency of the compressor, but has not yet been finalised.

Brooks made the point that the UK’s involvement with Europe has significantly aided the development and introduction of global standards for energy efficient technologies. “BCAS has, through the BSI, had a major influence in getting the compressed air industry well and truly onto the path of energy efficient, carbon reducing modern technologies,” he said.

Continuing the energy efficiency and safety themes, Sands has seen major growth in the areas of safety- and energy-related products. “This is typified within our air supply range with sophisticated modules able to monitor and record energy consumption, automatically shutting off when the machine is in stand-by mode and even detecting and reporting leakage,” he said. “Monitored mechatronic air supply units have taken away a lot of the complicated work to fulfill safety requirements, conducting all the monitoring and self-test routines as an autonomous unit. The attractiveness of both of these solutions has been proven with dramatic sales numbers: despite these not being low cost solutions, the overall value and cost savings provide a quick return on investment.”

Les Littlewood, sales & marketing director, Albion Valves (UK) Ltd., commented that the building services industry has been put under pressure with fuel saving targets and the task to reduce companies’ carbon footprint, which has in turn put pressure on companies such as Albion Valves to provide more energy efficient products. “This is where intelligent valves such as pressure independent control valves (PICV) and differential pressure control valves (DPCV) have been useful within commercial heating systems because they help to reduce the amount of energy that is wasted,” he said, adding that they are also self-acting valves, with no commissioning required. “Not only does this save energy, but it also saves time,” said Littlewood.

Revell reminds us that the compressed air industry has been subject to changes in motor efficiency regulations, FGAS regulations for refrigerant gases and tighter regulations with regard to waste disposal; whether this be service parts or condensate disposal. “These changes are very much aligned to Atlas Copco’s brand promise of Sustainable Productivity, where we aim to minimise our impact on the environment through lean production of technologically advanced equipment and the reduction of waste throughout its lifecycle,” he explained.

Revell added that health & safety has become the top priority for Atlas Copco and its clients. He pointed out that the company ensures its products and services are designed, installed and maintained with health & safety as a priority. “Besides the legislative requirements, we drive towards ensuring everyone gets home safe every day,” he said.

Kling remarked that Tier 4 emission regulations have had a huge impact on diesel engines, and as a consequence hydraulic motors and systems have had to become more compact and more efficient. “Here at Eaton, we are implementing solutions such as electro-hydraulics and Load Sense to offer greater efficiency,” he explained, adding it is also important to note that while legislation is a driving force, the market had been driving towards more efficient solutions for a number of years.

From an environmental point of view, Cuthbert pointed out that one major area regarding regulation has been concerned with the increased efficiency of engines on mobile machines (Tier 4). “In this regard, hydraulic measurement and control equipment can play an important role in helping keep companies compliant,” he said.

Also, from a health & safety point of view, Cuthbert believes things have moved in the right direction. “Now, there is much greater acceptance and expectation of risk assessment of things within the hydraulics arena than there was a couple of decades ago,” he remarked. “Hydraulics engineers can tend to be fairly relaxed about the fact that we are working every day with pressure vessels that could potentially be lethal. Everything is well engineered for the most part; hence, we have very few accidents within the industry. However, I think there is an increasing awareness and expectation of things such as personal protective equipment and there is now more of an effort to remove people from operations completely if the tasks they undertake are potentially very dangerous. Instead, more and more companies are now looking at automation or redesigning of the task to some extent so that people don't need to work so close to a machine.”

In terms of filtration, Cuthbert commented that if one looks at the history of ISO 9000 quality management and quality assurance, we had BS5750 in the 1990s, which later changed to ISO 9001. “It started off with the idea of reducing waste and then started to look at failures and putting in place preventative action. Now in 2017, we are trying to assess the risk of things happening before we have even designed them. So, it's now trying to think analytically at the beginning of doing anything in order to determine the future potential risks. For example, in order to improve things such as machine or equipment uptime, improved performance, health & safety and so on.”

Government policy

How has Government policy towards engineering/manufacturing changed over the past couple of decades? Brooks considers that, although governments come and go, it cannot be denied that all have neglected the need for the UK to once again invest in the engineering sectors of the UK economy. “Engineering in all sectors of the UK needs youth and we need our schools to again engage students in the idea that engineering is exciting, interesting, rewarding and fun to be involved with,” he insisted. “The introduction of Trailblazer (apprenticeship) is of course most welcome, but we need to take this to schools and attempt to get students at primary & secondary levels talking about engineering and how it affects our everyday lives.”

Hambrook believes the recent encouragement to take up a trade over degree-related further education is a positive move. He added that the Government could do more to support engineering & manufacturing and our global markets by way of financial incentives/tax breaks for companies investing in modernising their workshops, and exhibiting at national & international trade shows as well as overseas advertising and so on.

Gunter made the point that, for a distributor such as Abdex, it is important for the UK Government to seek to secure a positive outcome during the Brexit negotiations. This, he maintains, will give business people more confidence during the process.

Cuthbert’s view is that Government has never really understood engineering and manufacturing in the same way as it understands financial services. “Many engineers tend to be fairly self-sufficient and set out to achieve their goals anyway without waiting for the opportunity of a handout from Government,” he remarked. “That said, we have received help at various times over the years on things such as exporting, and of course that is always gratefully received. From the point of view of investment in manufacturing, there are often schemes available, and these tend to ebb and flow depending on the colour of the Government and awareness of the Minister at any given time.”

Cuthbert added that the tide is turning away from the old adage that 50% of the population should go to university; something he believes had the effect of sucking many potential new technicians out of the market. “This has now come full circle to a situation whereby not so many people can choose to go to university and more apprenticeships are available,” he said. “I think this is really positive, but it is ironic in that some time ago if a company offered an apprenticeship it would be flooded with applications because there weren’t many of these types of opportunities around; now, we have a situation whereby more companies are offering apprenticeships but there is a shortage of candidates applying for these positions. So, I think the Government and industry in general still has much work to do in terms of motivating young people to think seriously about the benefits of a career in engineering and manufacturing. At Webtec, we are trying to influence this locally through various outreach schemes like EES and Primary Engineer.”

Power maintains that policies surrounding encouraging young people into the engineering and manufacturing sector through apprenticeships is an important change to note. “According to the Government, the UK faces an estimated shortfall of 20,000 engineering graduates a year, with half of companies in the sector saying the shortage is having a significant impact on productivity and growth,” he said. “Ensuring industry has a workforce of skilled professionals in place is critically important. Whether it’s due to ever-increasing tuition fees or the academic environment simply not providing the right professional route, going to university is not for everyone.”

Power pointed out that by recruiting directly into the business, or collaborating with its distributor partners and offering support for training costs, Gardner Denver is playing a vital role in trying to increase the number of school, college and university leavers into a career in the compressed air industry. “By training these professionals up from the start, we can help ensure they are equipped with the right skills for life,” he said. “However, on a wider industry scale, it’s crucial that we continue to position the manufacturing and engineering sector as an attractive proposition for young people. The industry is a long way behind where it needs to be, and it should be a real focus in the coming years.”

Buxton reflected that if anything good came out of the recession of 2008/9 it was the UK Government being forced to accept that a successful economy couldn’t rely upon a purely service based industry dominated by banks’ lending money to each other at extortionate LIBOR rates and then playing ‘hot-potato’ with toxic debts. “In seeking a new lifeboat to which they might attach their safety line, they rediscovered manufacturing,” he said. “Since then, we have seen successive cabinets invest in what has been coined as the Government’s Industrial Strategy. Indeed, a white paper on this very subject is expected at any time now and industry has high hopes for the content. Based around ten key pillars, the strategy is designed to take Britain’s manufacturing capability into the new Post-Brexit era. Whether or not it will do so is still to be seen, but, in fairness, Government has engaged with industry (including the BFPA) in its development and the early signs are very positive.”

From the building services point of view with regard to the heating of buildings, Littlewood believes Government policy has been a good thing. “It is all about energy saving and clean emissions, which is saving companies money and helping the environment,” he said.

Revell believes Government policies have grown ever more focused on supporting the UK’s manufacturing sector, with a realisation that the country cannot rely on the service sectors alone. “With the uncertainty over the future shape of trading relationships in Europe, UK plc need to ensure we are leading technology to remain competitive in the world economy,” he said. “Investment in the new technologies and mining the skills of our university graduates will secure our place in the market and help us develop new innovations to lead new market trends.”

Global landscape

How has the global landscape changed for UK businesses within manufacturing/engineering over the past two decades? Revell reflected that this is always a double-edged sword. “The Global Village has opened up access to new customers across the globe; but, on the other hand, it has opened our market to previously unknown suppliers,” he said. “This drives the need for competitive manufacturing and/or specialised bespoke offerings. With our production advancements and the UK’s skill base we are in a very good place to continue to provide world class products.”

Buxton reflects that two decades is a long time in any industry. “Generally, I would say that the global landscape has improved for UK companies,” he said. “There is still a lot of foreign ownership in the UK but that is the nature of globalisation. If a company employs British people and pays British Tax, it is effectively a British company. Aerospace and the automotive sectors have made particular strides and after much-needed recognition of the benefits to be realised, automation and robotics are now finally beginning to gain traction in this country. I only hope that Brexit doesn’t stall the process and reduce foreign direct investment (FDI). There are already signs that it is doing so, and I am particularly concerned for the next two or three years. A so called ‘hard Brexit’ would not be good for British manufacturing.”

On the negative side, Hambrook said many factory estates have gone on reducing the amount of local industrial services, and real estate prices have increased with less availability; resulting in a stifling of expansion. He added that there has also been a reduction in good available labour. “Most people now wish to work in the service industry as it offers greater rewards, a cleaner environment and with more personal progression opportunities,” he said.

From a more positive perspective, Hambrook made the point that the cost of machinery has come down in relative terms. He added that the ability to communicate more accurately and effectively in both time and cost with the advent of the Internet has also been a major benefit, as has price and accessibility of computer hardware and some very powerful software.

Sands commented that OEMs have been through a cycle. “Those who saw benefits in off-shoring followed this route, and some of them have since re-shored due to the changing global labour and exchange rate costs, or for production control, stability and quality control reasons,” he said. “The remaining base appears to be more financially resilient and capable of competing on their chosen national or international base.”

Cuthbert commented that in 1996 when Hydraulics & Pneumatics was first published, if you wanted to deal with Europe you had to deal in many different currencies. Then, come the year 2000 everything changes to euros. “From an international sales manager's point of view, this was a very welcome change; it caused some headaches because he/she had a French Franc pricelist, a Deutschmark pricelist and Dutch guilder pricelist and so on, and these had to be harmonised vis-à-vis the Euro. However, that was a one-time pain and now it's really convenient for businesses – we just have this one price list and it manages 27 countries. So, from that point of view there is clearly a major positive difference.”

On the flipside, Cuthbert said this gave visibility to different people within that European market in terms of what the price was of something in a much easier way so there was increased competition. Also, through e-commerce, he made the point that it is now easy to buy many things online from just about anywhere in the world in a foreign currency and have them shipped directly to you. “With this convenience comes increased visibility and increased competition, but it also gives manufacturers such as ourselves an increased reach insofar as we can now communicate with more customers and our distributors in a faster, easier fashion, providing the opportunity to generate more business.”

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