How digital technology is transforming the region’s manufacturing sector
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The pandemic has shifted the way manufacturers operate with digitisation taking a priority.
Ambitious companies are embracing the next industrial revolution which is transforming all sectors and helping manufacturers by increasing productivity and efficiency, lower operating costs, reduced lead times, the ability to be more competitive, and improve worker safety.
How manufacturers are making these transformational steps and what Industry 4.0 means for the manufacturing sector across the North West were explored at a recent online event in partnership with Liverpool’s ground-breaking CW4.0 programme, which is helping manufacturers accelerate opportunities for growth and investment using digital technology.
The panel included: Daniel Smalley – Business Manager Factory Automation Digitalisation at Siemens Digital Industries, Anthony Walker – Strategic Manager at Liverpool John Moores University, Jake Lavelle – Founder of JPL Flavour Technologies, Ron McKay – Managing Director/Senior Engineer at PSW Integrity, Luke Walsh – Managing Director of Brainboxes and Mike Gazzola – Managing Director at R&M Joinery Manufacturers.
Explaining why Industry 4.0 was critical to drive the region’s ambitions to be the UK centre for digital manufacturing, Anthony Walker, Strategic Manager at Liverpool John Moores University, said: “We live in a world now where digital technology is having much more of an impact on every aspect of our lives than ever before.
“It enables change in the way we live, where we work, where we socialise and everything that we do. This industry for revolution is already underway, but the interesting part for me is it is more of an evolution than the previous three because there is not just one solution.
“It is about automation, artificial intelligence, the use of data and the cloud which form the pillars of technology.
“We see digital technology or Industry Four as the key enabling technology to drive economic growth, particularly in SMEs and particularly cross sector because it allows people to be more flexible, more agile and react to opportunities more rapidly.
“That then leads to increased productivity, improved competitiveness and then, by definition, really enables sustainable growth to make people more efficient.
“It’s really an important concept but even more important is the adoption of such technologies, and then the use of innovation and skills to allow people to grow and move forward.”
Daniel Smalley, Business Manager Factory Automation Digitalisation at Siemens Digital Industries, said there was still a long way to go before factories could start taking advantage of some of the latest technologies.
“This largely depends on the level of maturity that factories have in terms of the adoption of technology,” he said.
“What we don’t want to do is miss the conversation around the fundamentals of automation by getting too quickly into the topic of big data and artificial intelligence.
“For quite a lot of our customers we’ve got a long way to go in terms of their maturity of just connecting machines securely, sharing data, getting common data models and such before they can really start taking advantage of some of the more future oriented technologies.”
From Siemens point of view, he said manufacturers needed to ask how they can go from an initial inquiry from a customer to producing a product and linking these systems together as they are often quite “disparate and different systems.”
Luke Walsh, Managing Director of Brainboxes, a Liverpool City Region based designer and manufacturer of data and connectivity products, spoke of their digital journey.
He explained: “Different industries have adopted technology at different rates. As an example of that are smartwatches. They record how we run and will record undulations in our running capability. And this is just the standard feature all customers expect or consumers have.
“But start applying that same technology to a different industry and you start to find that other industries are way behind.
“We work with the train industry, for example, and they want to measure undulations in the train track, in the same way that your smartwatch measures your runs.
“We have done a pilot with a particular train company that has installed some of our products that we make here in Liverpool into their trains.
“Those products measure the vibration of the train on the track and pass that data up to the cloud and then the train company can see which parts of the track are uncomfortable for the customer.
“All this relates to saving money for the train company because if the track is uncomfortable for the customer, they have to slow the train down. If they slow the train down, the train will run late. If the train runs late, then they can be fined by the operator.
“And so, it’s just reapplying the same techniques and the same type of technology to different problems across different sectors.”
He added: “Even now more so than ever, companies need to find ways to make cost savings to deliver to their customers because the price of raw materials is typically going up and they need to keep a really tight control over that.
“So, we’ve got a number of examples where our technologies are used within our own factory and within our customer’s factories to help improve their efficiency and ultimately help them save money.”
Ron McKay is Managing Director/Senior Engineer at PSW Integrity, a fast-growing company specialising in the implementation and deployment of best practice maintenance.
PSW Integrity is helping businesses to realise the fourth Industrial revolution regardless of size by providing the tools to open a world of machine monitoring, connect legacy equipment for Industrial IoT projects, extract significant data from production lines, and initiate factory automation projects.
“The beauty of our technology is that for almost every kind of process parameter or every kind of condition parameter that you’re looking to monitor, there’s a technology out there that’s available which is wireless and can feed into the cloud,” he said.
PSW is currently working with a plastic extrusion company which spends £3m a year on electricity use and its biggest contributor to the efficiency of the business is its equipment.
He said: “So, we’re looking for the most carbon neutral equipment for them and while we’re doing this, we’re also installing monitoring solutions for energy on every single liner.
“That will enable me to see where the biggest costs are and where the biggest cost savings can be made.
“All of these kinds of things will really drive towards reducing their carbon footprint massively and this can be deployed across multiple sites and multiple customers as well and that plays a key role in the UK meeting its 2050 net zero targets.
“It’s a massive influence to be able to monitor every aspect of the performance of the plants and be able to then drive that proactively towards reducing energy efficiency.”
Mike Gazzola, Managing Director at R&M Joinery Manufacturers, started digitising their processes a few years ago and took the decision to install bolt-on software instead of a bespoke system to manage their automation processes.
“We manufacture timber for a range of products from fire doors to staircases and previously we had our guys all working off different product systems with three different linkups for the machinery,” he explained.
“There was nothing we could do at the time, but we’ve now introduced a product called Asana, which is a bolt on project management software that acts as a filter to the other systems.
“Staff can get all their information from Asana, see their schedules, and what others are working on.
“We’ve found a way to muddle through with systems that are off the shelf simply because we wouldn’t be able to afford to get a bespoke version.
“Going back to what Daniel said about the maturity of systems, we’re probably at the low end of that.
“Looking at how far into Industry 4.0 that a company our size can get to – we’re trying to find a way of getting as close to that as we can while staying realistic about what we can afford to spend and how much time we can spend implementing those systems.
“We’ve invested £50,000 to get to where we are now, which isn’t a great deal when you consider the benefits it’s given us.”
For Jake Lavelle, founder of JPL Flavour Technologies, a Cheshire-based flavour manufacturer for the food and drinks industry, ensuring the right technology is in place means that operators can keep track on how much product they have to ensure products are developed with exactly the right amount of ingredients.
He said: “We’ve had issues with compounds running out and with six weeks of lead time, it was a major issue. We originally locked into a NetSuite system because it helped us to track and trace how much we had and where each module has ended up in the factory from delivery.
“We’ve added another flavour specific software which means even if we’ve added an extra 0.01m of a compound we will know immediately if we have gone over the scale. Knowing how much tolerance we have with each batch has saved us time and money.”
He added: “We’re looking at automation potentially but there’s not a lot of options out there at the minute for flavours so we’re just looking to potentially work with the likes of The Growth Hub to see where we can add automation robots in there if it’s possible.”
The panellists agreed the pandemic has shifted people’s attitude towards digitisation and automation.
“A crisis is a good opportunity for people to about revaluate what they were doing in light of everything that changed within their business circumstance,” said Gazzola.
“For example, there are things that we’ve previously done on paper and we had done that system for years but during lockdown we couldn’t because half the team were at home. And so, we had to digitise it and that has led to loads of benefits, and we’d never go back now.”
Luke Walsh said: “A lot of businesses found that a drop in demand suddenly allowed them to evaluate the options for the shop floor or some businesses saw huge spikes in demand while still being under this tremendous stress of managing manpower in the building.
“We’ve seen a number of companies adopt our technology during this time because of those challenges, and we’ve been forced to do it ourselves as well.”
Daniel Smalley said: “For many of our customers, digitisation is not a new idea for them. But it (the pandemic) certainly accelerated the decision, and we can definitely see a big uptake in terms of those types of technologies being purchased directly from us that is absolutely being accelerated into manufacturing.”
Anthony Walker added: “From our perspective as an organisation that provides innovation support on new technologies, particularly to SMEs, I think a lot of people thought that the demand would have gone down but it’s gone up and it has accelerated things.”