Using Robotics within Your Manufacturing Business with Mike Wilson

12 July 2018

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Terry Mallin : Hi all, thanks for tuning in on this week’s manufacturing Ignition hot topic, and this week I’m delighted to be joined by Mike Wilson from ABB. ABB is our global leading supplier of industrial robots and systems, and to be honest if you haven’t heard about the ABB, where have you been hiding? Mike is the business development manager for ABB in the UK and he’s leading the drive camp towards the use of robots across UK manufacturing. In addition, he’s the chairman of the British Automation and Robot Association, and is also the author of Implementation of Robot Systems which was published in 2014.

With all that said, as discussed at the start I’m delighted to have Mike on the show this week and to discuss this week’s hot topic which is: Using robots within your manufacturing business.

So Mike how are you today? 



Mike Wilson : I'm very good Terry, thank you.


Terry Mallin  : And thank you very much for taking out your time, I’m really looking forward to this podcast. As in previous episodes that I’ve done Mike have been.. industry 4.0, and more importantly about the robotic and automation site and I hope that can help manufacturing leaders across the UK to increase productivity within their manufacturing business. So I think we’ll just get kicked off straight Mike what do you see is the strong challenges within UK manufacturing?


Mike Wilson : I think most of the audience will probably know this but growing competition from overseas, the challenge of cost so is rising particularly in terms of energy raw materials. Probably less well-known, there is a skill shortage coming, it's predicted that there's more than 250,000 vacancies in engineering businesses by 2022, so we will need to find ways of utilising our skills better. Probably, one of the biggest challenges we face in the UK is our productivity, we're about 20% below our major competitors, and unless we address that challenge, we're going to struggle to be competitive going forwards.


Terry Mallin : Yes 100%. And I think that ties on.. the whole reason why I’ve got passion for robotics and automation is one of the key things that is in a lot of people’s minds as brackets and hope what the outcomes would be now, and me personally I know a number of businesses who are struggling for staff at the moment, and that’s all down to people you know, living the UK to return turn back to Europe, and with that Mike I'm sure that you know a lot of people would benefit from robotic automation if that was in place you know, with this happening as well I kind of see that as a big challenge. And looking at those challenges, how do you-- you know the benefits of robotic automation within manufacturing, how do you see that being a benefit to potential manufacturers?


Mike Wilson : Well, in terms of robots it is all about improving productivity, it's about increasing yield, getting more out for what you put in, particularly proving the utilisation of other equipment. So if you've got machines that are being loaded and unloaded manually, they're always going to be waiting at some point for the operator to come along and do his job whereas if you can automate that process, they'll be unloaded and reloaded exactly when required and as efficiently as possible. But one of the keys to me is actually in terms of better utilization of staff, using the staff where their skills and attributes can add value to the product, and using robots where you've got tasks that are mundane, repetitive and arduous. Task where effectively using people as robots so, why not use robots for those tasks?



Terry Mallin : Yes exactly, and I think that's a key point that actually you've raised, that makes a lot of people think we'll be bringing robotics.. facility and actually it’s going to make everyone redundant. It’s just going to be you know awfully odd it may be safe you know that, I mean the reality is, you know if you have.. I'm giving you an example, if you have someone within a cake factory whose sole job is to put grease-proof paper into a baking tray all day, that could be simply covered with a piece of robotic technology and that person can then be utilized better somewhere else in the business. So actually, it's allowing the business to.. mundane task if you don't buy machinery and people with brains to be utilized in the best status to increase productivity. That's what I think anyway.


Mike Wilson : No, not very much so it's about using the people where you can get most out of the people and using machines, using robots where the repetition is not really suited to the people themselves. So you know robots will give you consistency, they'll give you consistent high quality. They'll minimise damage, they'll reduce waste, reduce rework, but at the same time because robots are programmable, they give you the flexibility that most businesses need today, because they can be reprogrammed for new products, they can be reprogrammed for a range of products. So you don't necessarily get tied into high volume production runs, robots can be applied to run-offs or even small batches. They also improve health and safety because you take people away from the dirty, the dangerous tasks. And ultimately, you give people more rewarding jobs which means you get more out of those people.


Terry Mallin : And even when you were mentioning about the skill shortage, that's got to help with that as well.  You know, of course there will be less people employed within a factory as well due to.. at first it was the case but you know the gallop is still going to fall out as well and you know that's going to take a little less substantial skill shortage in future and I can see a lot of different roles being created as well, making the kind of people who are the fault of thinking individuals who are  in based in this technology, now, if they all look into actually people like IT managers, information engineers, people who are specialist within robotics and maintaining those type of equipment and fixing issues, then they've got to get the market we thought, and they’re going to benefit from that in the longer term, because they're going to have the right type of people within their organisations to help those, exactly when was looking through that type of person could fall out you know, there’s not that many people out there at the moment so there’s a shortage there. I’m sideways tracking there but I just thought that would be important as well for people to start thinking.



Mike Wilson : No, it is. To make the most of robot automation, we believe it's important we put some kind of strategies together a bit like a business plan, so you kind of identify where you want to be in five or 10 years time and develop the manufacturing solutions using the robots to get there. Try and do the relatively easy tasks first and move on to the more complicated tasks later, and at the same time in parallel with all of that, develop the skills that you need within the business to operate and maintain this equipment. You can't go to a fully automated factory in one step and we'd never recommend that anybody tried to do that, it's about making small steps and making them successful.


Terry Mallin : 100%.  And you know Mike it gets me thinking though because I think the key thing is, the existing engineers or technical operators within your manufacturing site, you know what you could look at is putting the guys through training, and getting the guys trained up over a period of time. So actually what you're increasing as well is staff motivation and retention, and you know that's something completely different. Mike what type of robots are available for manufacturers?


Mike Wilson :  I mean these days, there are all sorts of different robots available. They range from you know highly precise dexterous machines that can assemble very small parts very repeatably, all the way up to larger machines for politising, high speed machines for packaging on food production lines, welding machines you know within our range, we’ve got about 30 basic robots that range from about half a kilo capacity all the way up to one ton capacity and we can identify the most appropriate machine for an application. But one of the keys to all of this is not just the robot machine itself but the equipment you put around the robot, to make sure that the system is designed to do the job that's required of it, and all the elements of the system are as reliable as the robot that forms the centre of that.

So it is important that the appropriate studies are made early on to identify the most appropriate solution, to meet the needs of that particular customer and those particular production requirements.


Terry Mallin : How would listeners go about doing that?


Mike Wilson : You know, we would recommend that they engage with companies that are expert within this field, we provide advice and support to people that are new to robots, we run a regular event called ‘Switch to Robots’ which goes through the benefits of robot automation, the steps that are required to implement robot systems and also things like how to write specifications, how to develop the justification so that people that are new to it can take the appropriate steps. It's in many ways it's no different to buying any other piece of capital equipment, but people tend to be afraid because it's got this term "robot" in it and it tends to scare people off but as long as you go through the appropriate steps, then you can make a success of any project and we're very happy to help with that.


Terry Mallin : Yes, and I think I was in Lisbon, that was last year last October, way in summer and it was a.. and they introduced a robot onto the stage, and this was a robot that could think, it could speak it, it could.. you know you could have a conversation with and it actually went up to a person, and “my name is Bourne” and I think when we talk about robots, that's the first picture that comes in their head, people's heads as well, it's that type of robot but actually the reality is what we’re using within manufacturing is a bit of kept, that’s taking a sort of mundane process task and been able to automate that, you know it'll actually be able to do it without the need for human interaction, and these robots could range in size and cater for application within a manufacturing site but actually Mike, you touched on some of the robots that would benefit our listeners, could you get me an example of a sort of real life scenario that you have been involved in and maybe one of the customers and how that benefited them.


Mike Wilson : Sure, we've got robots in all sorts of different industries but just to give you an example of a couple, we have a customer down in Cornwall called CHX plastics who put their first robot in probably about eight nine years ago now, for unloading injection moulding machines and CHX plastics make low value plastic products like badges and fridge magnets, and they also did the red noses for the cars for the last Red Nose Day. So it kind of gives you an idea of the kind of low value product they're making, and they typically compete with a product coming out of China, they put robots in to unload the molding machines and process the parts through the first steps of the manufacturing process. And what that's meant is that they were able to increase production, they were able to also operate overnight at times without anybody in the factory, they've been able to redeploy the workers they haven't lost anybody, they've redeployed the workers so they now set up the next task to go through, rather than just being tied to the machines for loading and unloading. And it's meant that they've been able to reduce their costs, they're able to be competitive against the product coming from China, they don't get down to exactly the same cost levels but they win because they could be more responsive to their customers. So it's a great example of a relatively small business it's only about 20 people, it's now got a couple of robots that’s been able to introduce this technology and benefit from it.

We also have a company called Signature Flatbreads in Bedfordshire, who produces the small pancakes that we buy in the supermarket, and they put robots in in their system for packing of the pancakes, so they got high speed Flex Picker robots in cells, four robots in a cell, each robot can pick about a hundred and ten pancakes per minute, and they're reducing wastage, they're improving hygiene and again they're improving their productivity. So rather than using people to pack these pancakes they've now got machines doing it, and the people are being redeployed to more value added tasks. So hopefully that gives you kind of two examples of businesses that have very successfully employed robot systems in the UK.


Terry Mallin : Yes great and it just shows you the-- you know going from food too plastics and I’m guessing that’s but even taking-- I mean the more hours, the more industries obviously massive with regards to robots. I think even like... even fabrication, processing engineering could benefit from any of this, I mean anything about manufacturing, set up those potential for robotics within it to increase their productivity. And touching on the sort of RY that these companies are seeing  I'm guessing it's through the rough making of it, not necessarily for the rough making, I'm guessing they’ll see a good return on investment, or over a period of time I know—I think a lot of people would be thinking robots might cost, but the reality is you know, yes it's a technical piece of equipment but if you're looking at the return on investment that you get over a period of time, through cost savings and increase in productivity whatever that may be, I'm guessing those are significant business propositions there.



Mike Wilson : Yes it's... I mean that I'm not going to pretend that this is cheap, there can be significant costs, but you get improved productivity. You know if you take a typical welding saw for example, a robot welding system can produce the same as four welders on a single shift. So you can get a significant increase in output. The equipment will operate for many many years, most robot systems are operating for in excess of 10 years, so it is really about thinking longer term. Terms of ROI, most of our customers see a return on investment of about 18 months, but once they invested.


Terry Mallin : Okay, is that all 18 months? Wow


Mike Wilson : You know 18 months. I mean it can get up two years, it does depend on whether you're operating single or two shifts or three shifts. But you know typically we're on about 18 months, once you've paid for the equipment, it continues to operate for minimal additional cost and therefore gives you know significant benefits in the long term.


Terry Mallin : I'm amazed I mean, I was thinking probably in my head three years minimum, five years probably realistic. Actually 18 months can get that  and I think it goes back to what we kind of discussed at the start Mike you know we were looking at those key significant charges between UK manufacturing at the moment. Well robots can obviously benefit that as well but actually, you know pieces often together, if you have a structured plan and you put a business plan and a proposition in place whereas you’re actually working out to oversee and bringing out added fees at added stages. You know, and actually making sure that it's right for your business and right for your manufacturing sake, and actually what you'll getting is you know, your potential for staff to be more engaged than what there are at the moment because there's that opportunity for.. You know people could see it actually being developed, as well as getting training or getting involved in a you know a brand new formal thinking business.. and kept at, I see...


I think the biggest thing is can the business afford that? I think you know with everything going on and you know guys if you’re listening and you're really looking on bringing someone from one of the leading banks in the UK and as well as I've got finance routes as well because I think you know what UK manufacturing will want a you know-- be  the flight bill or once again globally as we manufacturers and I think this is a key aspect that we need to be taking into account and investing in the latest technologies to improve as I thought we've just discussed on the basis of you know productivity.


Mike Wilson : All right Terry, one of the things that to me I think is key, it's almost cultural, the All Party Parliamentary manufacturing group did a study or commissioned a study about three years ago looking at the culture of the UK manufacturing and if I'm allowed to summarize a 50 old page report in couple sentences, UK manufacturing in general is very proud of the fact that we can keep all of our old machines running, whereas in Germany they're very proud of the fact they bought new ones. And you know that seems to ring true, I say that frequently in front of audiences and a lot of manufacturers recognise that they're keeping old kit running and they're not necessarily investing in new equipment, and I think the key to our future is investing in the latest technologies and robots as part of that. You know that, they're not new technologies but they do continue to develop and they're getting cheaper all of the time whereas labour costs are going up all of the time. So I think it's important that we invest in the right equipment to make sure that we can utilise our labour as effectively as possible.



Terry Mallin Yes it'.. at the end of the day if you're a business leader listening to this, you know this is one of the you know, this is a pivotal piece of technology truly you know, you want to be at the front as we've discussed you know, at the end of the day, if you're able to put the time and effort in and actually pull the business plan together, you'll get everything going. There's massive massive benefits, there's risk as well, there's risk but there's massive benefits and in my eyes, it’s a matter of I can see that people who are the pioneers you know for example CHX Plastics that Mike mentioned earlier as well as the pancake place, these companies are now developing the scale sets that they need within their business to maintain and repair the robotics, they are moving in the right direction and it can only benefit their business. You now, I think you know if somebody.. if anyone is looking for any information on this, you know Mike is in the industry leader for robotics in the UK and I’ll definitely recommend reaching out to make contact and make contacts details on that. Mike is there anything else that you think would add value to the listeners??


Mike Wilson : Like you know, I think the key is that there's lots of lots of opportunities within UK manufacturing to apply robots. We are quite a long way behind the rest of the world in terms of our utilization of this kind of equipment. We're about the world average which means we've got some catching up to do.

You know we're behind most of Europe but one of the benefits of being in that position is that a lot of solutions already exist, you know we can we can bring in the technology, the concepts of the solutions from other parts of the world and apply them to existing challenges within U.K. manufacturing. So we don't have to reinvent the wheel, and that reduces the risks. So we can help businesses identify where they can best supply the automation and if businesses are willing to engage with us, we're willing to help them as they start on this journey to develop the first applications, develop the business cases, identify the finance and I should add that in terms of finance, if you look to some form of asset base finance, you’d probably get cash into the business the day you turn the machinery on.

So it is worth doing, it's not as risky as most businesses maybe thinking it is, and it's about making that first step and we're very happy to help companies make that first step.


Terry Mallin : Oh so now I'm sure definitely making myself, I'm sure if anyone's got any questions, they will like to speak to anyone who has implemented robotics within the manufacturing site, you know I’m sure that they’ll like to talk to people as well, you know to kind of give you that understanding from a pure level as well you know, how that has benefited all the risks involved with it and you know a completely impartial view. Mike I’ll tell you what that was fantastic, that was a great hot topic this week, very insightful. I'm sure a lot of our listeners will get a lot of value from that. Guys listening and should you have any questions or you're looking to find out more on how robots could benefit your manufacturing business, please do get in touch with Mike Wilson directly. His email address is mike.wilson (at)

Mike great show, really appreciate your time thanks for that. And I want to thank our listeners as well for listening. Please do check out our next episode next week and hopefully we’ll get someone from funding on next week to discuss how you could potentially take advantage of robotics within your manufacturing organisation.

Thank you very much Mike for your time, I do appreciate.


Mike Wilson : Thank you Terry.



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