Why flexible technology is key to reshoring manufacturing

MetLaseMetLase Managing Director Steve Dunn explains why flexible technologies, horizontal innovation and adaptive manufacturing are key to making reshoring a reality.

There is nothing like an unprecedented global crisis to sharpen focus on the importance of UK manufacturing and having a supply chain in place to produce vital, life-saving equipment.

Covid-19 has sent global shockwaves throughout the economy, but it has also made people think twice about building things overseas. Reshoring, it appears, is in vogue.

Whilst some of this is being furiously led by Government departments trying to instigate a bounce back, there does appear to be industry sentiment behind it too. In fact, trade body Make UK research found 46% companies are planning to bring work back home over the next two years.

So, where there is a will, surely there is a way? Yes, that’s true, but UK manufacturers cannot sit back and just expect this to happen without ensuring they offer a competitive solution to international rivals.

Many contracts will have been offshored previously for cost reasons and this will definitely be the biggest hurdle to convert the hype into tangible orders.

“Creating flexible manufacturing facilities is one answer,” admits Steve Dunn, Managing Director of MetLase, a joint venture business between Rolls-Royce and Unipart.

“Rapid deployment of adaptive manufacturing processes enables companies to reconfigure their factories to keep their workforces safe, accelerate and standardise training and processes and support diversification into new sectors to mitigate unprecedented drops in volumes.

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“It will also support reshoring opportunities. By using proven technologies, we can look at how we remove customer ‘pain points’ and reduce cost pressures. It’s something we’ve carved a bit of a niche in and, unsurprisingly, it’s a service massively in demand.”

Meeting the Ventilator Challenge

MetLase, which employs 30 people at its state-of-the-art facility on the AMP Technology Centre in Sheffield, played a key role in the recent VentilatorChallengeUK Consortium that recently signed off on its 13,000th ventilator – a staggering achievement when you consider the number of companies involved and the scale of the ramp-up in such difficult conditions.

Engineers from its multi-disciplined team were brought in to provide critical design and manufacturability support for consortium partners, not to mention producing 72 bespoke manufacturing workstations for Rolls-Royce’s Bristol facility.

The latter was created for parts storage, to give easy access to components and be user friendly, with many people on the shop floor having workstation envy at the quality and usability of the products. Better still, they were all manufactured and delivered quicker than it would have taken the consortium to get off-the-shelf ones that were not really fit for purpose.

“Horizontal innovation, where we take core technology and processes developed in one sector and transfer them to deliver a solution in another, is proving very popular,” added Dunn, who have been involved in engineering for more than 30 years.

“A major example of this is our patented mechanical fixings first developed by Rolls-Royce Aerospace. It is a new manufacturing technique that is fast, accurate and lends itself to iteration – very quickly and without too much expense.

“Our engineers will then look at the customer’s specific issue and, using this patented technology, design and create a specific solution. What has worked perfectly in aerospace, with a few expert adjustments, can be just as suitable for healthcare, construction or renewables.

“Ok, there is a lot more to it than that and you have to first understand what drives a particular sector. For example, aero demands accuracy but has lower volume requirements, meaning non-recurring costs – such as design and development, validation and tooling -become a bigger factor of the overall cost model.

“Compare this to automotive, predominantly piece part driven, or heavy engineering that demands long-term robustness. As long as the core of the adaptive technology works, it can be easily tailored to suit all of the above requirements.”

When asked about reshoring and how ready the UK is for an influx of orders, Dunn points to the willingness of companies to adapt core manufacturing infrastructure and ensuring their teams are getting the most out of existing capital equipment.

This does not just mean greater efficiency on the existing operations they’re being used for now, but also adapting machinery to enable a wider variety of parts or processes to be carried out.

Smart upskilling

“Skills and training will be another key ingredient we have to get right. How do we enable the rapid upskilling of existing workforces so they can produce a new, broader range of parts at low risk to the customer?” added Dunn.

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Workstations at MetLase

“One possible breakthrough is the development of our SmartBench, which is a workstation for complex manual assembly operations that has digital industry 4.0 systems at its heart.

“It will guide the operator thorough a manufacturing process, via a series of step-by-step digital work instructions that are screen based or projected onto work surfaces. Sensors integrated into the bench verify each part of the process has been completed correctly before allowing the individual to move onto the next step. In essence, the system guarantees no fault forward.

“Connecting logistics and supply-chains directly to the manufacturing process allows for complete traceability of individual components back to raw material status. In turn, this enables service and maintenance requirements to be conducted highly efficiently.

“Smart workbenches contain a significant number of interconnected sensors and digital systems in a single integrated digital system – making these disparate technologies communicate and operate in unison is a substantial challenge, but one we believe we have overcome.”

Dunn concluded: “Faster, more intelligent manufacturing that delivers data is what industry is demanding and we are at the forefront of how we can turn a traditional fixture or tool into an intelligent component.”

Article written and supplied by MetLase

About MetLase (BoxOut)

MetLase, which is part of Unipart Group alongside Instrumentel and Park Signalling, specialises in the manufacture of world-class tooling, intelligent fixturing and components, bringing lead times of months down to hours or days.

The company works across automotive, aerospace and, increasingly, in scientific equipment and pharmaceuticals, with over £1m of new contracts secured in the UK, Australia, the EU and the US.