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Andy Parker-Bates of Parker Hannifin discusses the importance of automation in order for the UK to compete with low-cost manufacturing nations.

The cost and disruption of designing, building, installing and commissioning automation systems can put the payback years into the future and beyond consideration for many small and medium companies.

The following article looks at how modular subsystems can be used to speed the process and reduce risk by orders of magnitude.

For 10 years or more, the developing economies of Asia have taken work from established western manufacturing bases.

But more recently, the attractiveness of Asia has been increasingly questioned: managing operations at such a distance has not been without difficulties – logistics can be difficult; quality may not be consistent and moral issues may arise if sub-contractors are not working to the standards expected.

As eastern economies develop, their cost bases go up and their price advantage reduces.

But some economists are predicting the emergence of a new global order where heavy engineering and manufacturing is concentrated into low-cost regions; precision, advanced and complex work is focussed into specialist regions; and light engineering is performed locally to demand.

Coupled with this is a new political recognition of the value of the engineering industries.

Many of the financial services and creative industries that were encouraged in the 1980s and 1990s have shown themselves to be willing and able to relocate overseas.

It is now recognised that technical industries are more firmly rooted in their region through the need for specialist staff, sub-contractors, support companies and installed capital equipment.

Government support for manufacturing will not immediately be substantial, but we can realistically expect it to grow steadily over the life of the next several parliaments.

Critical issues affecting the development of manufacturing over the coming months and years will include control of costs, consistent quality of output, flexibility to meet changing market needs and minimised lead times.

All of these goals can be addressed through the automation of production processes, yet creating automated production is not without its own difficulties.

The best approach would be to start with a greenfield site and work from the ground up, but this is rarely possible.

Instead, the reality is that most factories and plants will have to automate gradually, one section at a time as funds become available, while maintaining production, developing new products and serving the market.

Plants that contain robots working away in high-volume car factories constantly update to accommodate new models, new working practises and new technologies.

But this investment is huge, which leads to the question of whether small- and medium-sized companies can achieve the same level of constant modernisation.

Over the last decade, the nature of automation systems has developed markedly.

New technologies, changes in manufacturing processes and a greater emphasis on usability have led to simpler, more modular and scaleable products, which in turn have opened up automation to a wider range of applications and smaller-size businesses.

These newer systems are easier to use, need less maintenance and no longer require end users to invest heavily in developing high levels of engineering expertise.

Allowing manufacturers to concentrate on their core competencies of manufacturing, today’s automation systems can be operated and configured by production personnel, ensuring production needs are at the forefront of all decision-making processes.

Automation systems can be found throughout all areas of manufacturing, from simple motor speed control in pump and fan applications, through to complex fully integrated production lines and everything in between.

By adopting a pragmatic attitude of doing what is necessary rather than what is technically possible, OEMs and end users can develop systems that lead to tangible production or cost benefits.

Technological advances have increased functionality in automation components, which combined with increased computing power has lead to intelligent and configurable sub-systems and application macros.

This makes it simpler and cheaper to automate existing processes and applications.

New technologies are also emerging.

For instance, linear motors are moving into micromachining, biomedical and research industries where dynamic performance and high levels of accuracy and repeatability are prerequisites.

As the technology matures and costs reduce, they will move into general industry, bringing fast speeds, high acceleration, greater efficiency and low maintenance.

Open, non-vendor specific communications such as Ethernet and Ethercat are leading to the development of guidelines and standards relating to control system architectures.

These guidelines will ensure the interoperability of equipment, ultimately reducing development and maintenance cost.

It is natural to address problem areas first – for instance, bottlenecks in multi-step manufacturing processes.

The ability to run systems 24/7 with consistency of output is a major driver for the automation of production operations.

Product scrappage or loss can be minimised, traceability ensured and manual handling reduced or eliminated.

The repetitive nature of these tasks make them ideally suited to automating.

When deciding to invest in automation, manufacturers need to be clear of their expectations in terms of increased production, freeing up of labour and improved product handling and control, then choose a system that matches these expectations.

Paying for extras that add nothing to the bottom line will only serve to complicate systems and potentially lead to production issues or difficulties.

Parker Hannifin is a manufacturer of motion and control technologies and systems, providing precision-engineered solutions for a wide variety of mobile, industrial and aerospace markets.

Micromech is the UK distributor and systems integrator for Parker Hannifin electromechanical products.

Micromech

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