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Making money in your sleep

Recently rising to the eighth largest manufacturing economy in the world, the route to continued ascension for UK manufacturing isn’t purely down to the well-publicised need for a national manufacturing strategy or government investment – a large burden of responsibility has to lie firmly at the feet of manufacturers and their reticence to automate. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) frequently shines a light on how far the UK is behind other developed nations. The most recent report shows that 71,000 robots were installed in Europe in 2022, the UK accounted for just over 2000 of those installations. As a world leader in automation, MTD Magazine spoke with Leigh Tricklebank, the Sales Director for Western Europe at FASTEMS to find out why automation is still a cultural challenge for UK manufacturers. 

Ironically, our conversation with Leigh took place in Opmeer at RODIN Machining, a Dutch subcontract manufacturing business that has invested in a FASTEMS solution to manufacture anything from prototypes to low and medium production runs – with a high part and complexity mix. Not only were the MTD team astounded and excited by what we witnessed at RODIN, but we were also a little melancholy as to why we rarely see such levels of automation in the UK subcontract supply chain. 

Having a conversation with Leigh, he tells MTD magazine: “In the UK, there are upward of 5000 subcontract manufacturers using prismatic four and five-axis machine tools and there is an interesting demographic within that. There are small lifestyle businesses through to serious manufacturers making significant investments. All of these businesses have a similar problem, they need to get orders, they need to process the orders, manage the resources and deliver and serve on time. The level of process quality will differ between businesses, but the overall audience of 5000 companies is huge. Some of these businesses will have a perception that FASTEMS is a pallet automation system that can be expensive and is typically the reserve for OEM manufacturers. It’s painful to hear this in the UK, as these companies really need to look closer at what we do.”

“For example, we have been delivering Auto Load Devices for more than 20 years – only now we are seeing the gradual uptake of this technology in the industry. For the obvious benefits of increasing uptime, safety and consistency while reducing manual intervention. Auto Load Devices are now becoming increasingly important as we cannot find a generation of people that are willing to pick a part up, put it in the machine and hit the green button. It’s not only a monotonous job, but it’s a job that people don’t want. So, as years have gone by this has become more pertinent.”

“Reshoring work from overseas is a very real opportunity, but volumes are still typically low and complexity has increased tenfold with the need for diversity and JIT manufacturing. Complex parts, processes and problems are all there – but the volumes are low. It’s difficult for UK manufacturers to hear, but we are not even close to the G20 figures for robots per 10,000 people. Our position is something like the 22nd largest adopter of robotics in Europe – not the world. It is embarrassing. Ultimately, we have to share the word that automation is no longer a future vision – it’s a reality, and companies like RODIN Machining are embracing that reality. The ‘no-go’s’ for companies like RODIN was that they did not want manual data entry and manual actions – they wanted autonomy and automation. Subcontractors in the UK should be looking at these points and realising that they should be striving for the same goals.”

“There is a myth that FASTEMS is a system only for large companies and OEMs – it really isn’t true. We have shown that at RODIN Machining. It’s a start-up company with four guys. If you look at the areas where businesses generally have problems such as labour and skill shortages, we are taking all of these decisions off the shop floor. Businesses generally have problems on the application side of things on the shop floor, less so on the processing side of things like CAD/CAM. It’s the button pressers on the shop floor that can kill productivity. The challenge for these 5000+ subcontract manufacturers is that they take an order in good faith and calculate the recipe for manufacturing. After winning the order, subcontractors have to transpose that learning from the sales phase into the engineering department – determining what fixtures, tools and machines to use. This is where the challenges arise – challenges that FASTEMS can streamline and simplify.”

Building Strong Strategic Pillars

Looking more directly at the UK subcontract industry and overcoming the challenges, Leigh continues: “Subcontract manufacturers in the UK have several issues. These will range from not having scalability, struggling to increase profitability, and the inevitable chaos created by people – and FASTEMS can fix all of these things. To put it in simplistic terms, we have four pillars of People, Processes, Investment, and Profitability. Some companies can have a fantastic business, but it may be labour-intensive, regardless of having CAD/CAM, an ERP system, tooling and material databases, high-end machine tools and even an FMS. But what these businesses won’t have is an overriding process that autonomously takes billets from order to invoice and finished part. In the mix of 5,000 subcontract manufacturers adopting 4 and 5-axis machining, there are a lot of lifestyle businesses where owners do not want to be working over weekends or unsociable hours – they want to make money while they sleep. FASTEMS can provide that lifestyle business for UK manufacturers.”

Joining the conversation, Mikko Tuomaala, the Marketing Director for FASTEMS comments upon the pillar of ‘People’, Mikko adds: “What automation removes from the human is the ‘triple D’ of manufacturing processes – Dirty, Dull and Dangerous.  Nobody wants to do these jobs, particularly the younger generation. Additionally, if you think of a machine shop and the people that work there, if you don’t control the process and its intelligence, this will fall upon the staff and it will create a deviation in results. You want your highly skilled staff to intervene in the optimisation of processes and be more engaged in the business, leaving the mundane operations to the automation system. The understanding of the machining process doesn’t go away, it is just facilitated by the system and optimised by skilled engineers.”

Alluding to the pillar of ‘Processes’, Mikko says: “In UK manufacturing, there are particular islands of manufacturing, so at the beginning, there could be an ERP system or a CRM system – there is a wealth of data and machines that are often sat there doing nothing. To achieve faster throughput and improve costs, deliveries and quality – the process has to be fixed. What FASTEMS does with its MMS is it acts as the nucleus of the ecosystem bringing in the ERP, the MRP, encapsulating the machine tools, the materials and fixtures – it brings together the recipe to bake a great cake. FASTEMS gives customers the facility to control everything from the door where the material arrives to the finished part at the end, and we can visualise it with our situational awareness. We cannot fix bottlenecks, but we can give customers insights into why a bottleneck exists. We can identify what parameters are causing the chaos in a customer’s system – from this data, great engineers can fix the problems. Our software empowers engineers to identify problems and create solutions. Automation pushes manufacturers to realise what is obvious. The problem is often the process and not the machine tool.”

Discussing ‘Investment’ on a UK-wide basis, Leigh adds: “In the UK, we use terms like ‘manufacturing is culturally important’, but there has been little investment over the last 30 years. How do manufacturers get investment? They either go through the long-winded painful process of obtaining a grant and if that doesn’t work they get screwed by the bank on loans with personal guarantees against directors. The level of investment in the UK is embarrassing. We have more than 500 installs in Europe from around 200 customers and this is because our customers keep re-investing with us. We have RE Thompson at the RODIN event and they ordered a cell in 2007, a second system in 2008, and another in 2012. We have just won an order for a fourth cell that will keep their business running for the next 20 years. Our biggest customer in the UK is BAE Systems, the F16 should have been decommissioned around 10 years ago, but they have to keep the program running for the next 20 years on machines that are virtually obsolete – our FMS is managing that.” 

Looking at the pillar of profitability, Leigh continues: “Companies like RODIN Machining look at profitability completely differently from manufacturers in the UK. UK manufacturers often value automation as a third of the cost of a machine tool. For example, a company may buy a machine tool for £500,000 and they will accept that it will run for 12 to 16 hours a day. Then they realise they need lights out machining for the remaining 8 hours – and this is where the valuation of one third comes from. So, they will be prepared to spend £150,000 on the automation of the machine tool. If a manufacturer buys two machines, they have an automation budget of £300,000 – we can automate two spindles for this, but it’s a poor equation. At RODIN, they started the company with four machine tools and spent 1.5 times that on automation – and look at what they’ve achieved. They don’t care about the capacity of the CAM system, the machines and the people – they care about the capacity of the process. They want to create a drumbeat of creating constant cash flow, autonomously with automation, 24/7 and 365. It’s a completely different way of looking at the same problem. When UK manufacturers look at the problem from a different perspective, they’ll find the resolution to the issues of People, Processes, Investment, and Profitability through FASTEMS.”

Targeting the ‘Pinch Points’

Looking at the pinch points for UK manufacturers, Leigh continues: “We are intrinsically linked to new machine tools – and we shouldn’t be. Ideally, I would like FASTEMS to be linked with manufacturers and their existing machine tools. If we are linked with the purchase of new machine tools, we are there like Oliver asking for scraps from the begging bowl. We want to have conversations with manufacturers regarding their business problems, not the component problems. Most manufacturers will have business issues such as being too expensive, not being able to produce parts quickly enough, stock rates and production downtime being too high, unskilled staff and a struggle to meet customer demand. These are the issues that I hear regularly.”

“We are not here to sell machines and robots, we are here to solve business problems. At FASTEMS, we look at how we can set your business up for the next 40 years – we cannot do that by looking at the X, Y, Z and the A, B and C. The punchline is that at FASTEMS, we don’t sell a product – we sell change. When businesses have a goal and a vision, that is where we can help. The attitude across Europe is that ‘if we make this investment, we trust that we will achieve things’. In the UK, the attitude is very much that if we have an order, we have to get it completed by next week – how do we do it and how can we make the part faster? The next step is to run around the machine tool companies and pick a vendor. However, this is often done with no process, no people and no best practice – it’s just compounding the existing problem.”

“Almost all subcontract manufacturers have chaos, we want to have the adult conversations that look beyond the existing project and what manufacturers want to do over the next 5 to 10 years. OEMs do not have this level of chaos, they have strategic thinking that opens the lines of communication with FASTEMS.”

Adding to this, Mikko says: “It is like playing a sport, as you progress through different levels, you see the game differently. Manufacturers need to stop being in reactive mode, sit down and think more strategically about the things that will solve their challenges.”

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