There has been much debate recently over the stagnation of the UK manufacturing industry. Various different factors, such as a lack of finance and adversity to risk leading to a lack of innovation, have been cited as the reasons behind the economic downturn. Here, Dave Sutton product marketing manager at Schneider Electric gives Automation his opinion

One of the main arguments as to why growth in the UK has slowed is the lack of ‘exploitation of specific technologies’. Do you agree with this?

On many levels, yes. It’s no secret that the UK is lagging behind the rest of Europe in the race to automate and adopt new technologies. An adversity to risk, lack of finance and also in some cases, a lack of knowledge can all be blamed for this slow uptake and resulting stagnant performance. However despite this, there is an appetite for automation in the UK and the main issue often lies in the process of system migration itself which is still deemed overly onerous and daunting. Because of this, a lot of legacy equipment still exists in operation in the UK manufacturing industry, which lacks the flexibility and visibility which modern automation systems provide.

So would you say that manufacturers’ equipment and systems are the main reason for this slowed growth?

They are certainly a key factor. The process industry is continually under pressure to ensure consistency of operations, maximise energy efficiency and drive innovation to improve productivity and thus growth. Many of the legacy systems which are still in existence lack the flexibility to allow manufacturers to achieve this and operate in a single collaborative environment.

Combine these disparate systems with the rising costs of raw materials, namely chemicals, food products, oil, plastics, metals and of course energy, and the sector is in a very challenging situation.

Do UK manufacturers need to look to a complete system overhaul in order to compete on a global scale?

Not at all. UK manufacturers’ automation systems have evolved over time, leaving them with a multi-generation installed base. Not all parts of the control legacy will need replacing and the real challenge is achieving flexibility in solutions that allow the manufacturer to preserve the resources worth keeping. In this way, the manufacturing industry can look to ‘bridge the technology gap’ as opposed to having to invest in a complete system overhaul.

So in light of this, why the hesitation for companies to move towards automation and review their systems?

A lack of understanding around a manufacturer’s systems and also the perceived complexity of the migration process itself, without specialist help from solutions providers, can be partly to blame. However, another key reason is that historically the process has also been seen as much more difficult for small-medium (SME) manufacturing companies, compared to larger organisations. This is based on the high costs of entry-level manufacturing execution system (MES) solutions which understandably, despite the clear benefits, have been met with hesitation.

However, advances in the market in response to the current economic climate has seen the rise of much more affordable MES solutions, such as Ampla Express, which are focused around quick gains in productivity and energy efficiency.

What else can manufacturers be doing to cut costs in their supply chains?

The ultimate goal is to achieve an open environment where production management applications such as plant asset management, performance management and scheduling can plug seamlessly into the same communications infrastructure as the basic energy management and control system functions – achieving what can be termed OEE+E, or ‘Overall Equipment Effectiveness plus Energy management’.

Gone are the days when each aspect of a plant is viewed in isolation. Monitoring OEE+E holistically allows for management of total energy consumption in a production context, at any level of granularity, allowing for energy based decisions to be made in real-time, identifying opportunities to reduce both production and energy waste.

What would you say then is the key to surmounting these challenges?

Crucially, in order to deploy continuous improvement mechanics towards manufacturing excellence, manufacturers need to recognise that an integrated approach is paramount. Collaboration both internally and externally with key stakeholders including CFOs, CEOs, CIOs, business managers, operations directors, QAs and supply chain and engineering teams is the key to success, where every party becomes a driver in the decision process.

The UK government has recently discussed setting up an ‘Office for Growth’ to try to kick-start the UK manufacturing sector and invest significant sums of the £40billion promised for infrastructure, into the industry. How do you see this working?

It is no secret that the manufacturing sector in the UK has been restrained by a lack of finance, so this injection of funds will provide the much-needed and welcome financial boost to allow the UK to reach a level playing field with its European counterparts. The key to its success however, will be the way in which the investment is spent. Provided the cash is invested wisely in updating and future-proofing the technology and systems of UK manufacturers, this funding could go a long way towards stimulating growth.

The Government has so far been criticised for doing ‘too little, too slowly’ rendering the situation irreversible. Would you agree?

Though the timing is crucial, in as much as manufacturers must act now in order to make changes, the situation needs not be irreversible at all. Using this finance, companies need to consult professional solutions providers who can offer guidance and advice in order to make the right decisions about their plant and systems and achieve a fully integrated and open environment with high OEE+E, allowing them to compete in the long term on a global scale.