24 Jul 2024

Talking Industry Live highlights digital transformation successes

Talking Industry Live

The inaugural Talking Industry Live conference took place at the MTC on 25 April. Moving from its on-line format to a physical version, the event started with a keynote session dedicated to a case study in digital transformation, followed by three themed discussions. Chair Andy Pye takes a look back over the day.

Talking Industry Live began with a keynote session entitled How to grow from £7m to £70m through the adoption of digital technologies. Unusually, it comprised a double-act – a discussion between Mike Hague-Morgan, executive director of Autocraft Solutions Group, and Dr Megan Ronayne, head of industrial technologies and manufacturing at Innovate UK KTN.

The KTN and the Catapult network played a vital role in Autocraft’s digital journey from being a traditional manufacturer using hand tools and paper-based systems, to a high-tech company with world-class quality, repeatability and digital traceability. The change has been the catalyst for its turnover climbing from £7m to £70m.

Hague-Morgan explained that he started his journey in manufacturing, working at Ford. By 26, he had been promoted to commercial director in a large multinational company and, due to the decline in some areas of manufacturing, had become something of an expert in consolidating sites and downsizing businesses!

In 2007, he was headhunted to join Autocraft Solutions Group (ASG), owned by US-based ATC Drivetrain. This traditional business had been profitable in the late 1990s, but turnover had dropped from £20m to £7m and it was losing £1m a year.

Hague-Morgan explained: “ASG had not won a contract in five years and consolidated from over 200 people to 98.

“At this time, engines were unreliable and there were lots of businesses like ASG. There was consolidation of the industry, and I was brought to ASG to manage the consolidation, to the point that ASG would be the last engine remanufacturer business remaining in the UK.”

He was given 18 months to turn it around, but 12 months in, the American owners decided to close it. Hague-Morgan decided to buy the business. “I had 98 workers to think about and keep their jobs, with multi-generations of families working for this business.” He had just four weeks to get the money to buy the business. He and two partners needed to find £500,000 and £150,000 of their own money, which they would lose if it went wrong. He used a lump sum from his mother’s pension to buy the shares.

Happily, his instincts proved correct and he managed to save the business and double its turnover to £14m, returning the money he had borrowed in a relatively short time.

The digital revolution

By 2015, a big step-change in engine technology was underway, both on emissions and efficiency. Remanufacturing increased, so Autocraft had to ramp up without having the money to invest. At the time, the company was still relying on hand tools, lots of paperwork and a lack of traceability.

At the same time, talk was starting about Industry 4.0 – the digitalisation of the manufacturing sector. Businesses were starting to record data for traceability and productivity improvements.

In 2017, digital adoption and the importance of digital technologies were ramped up with the Made Smarter Review, led by former Siemens CEO Juergen Maier and Innovate UK KTN’s manufacturing team.

Hague-Morgan started to attend KTN events and learned from lots of different factories and manufacturing environments. In 2017, he was invited to a KTN workshop at the Catapult, which was trying to get companies to invest in digital technologies. Tentative steps into computer vision followed, when the company bought its first robot and camera, which it integrated and programmed in-house.

Hague-Morgan met a student who wrote computer games and programmed vision systems. From there, ASG partnered with a small business to build a camera-controlled assembly system. This development cut training from six months to two weeks, and the company started to sell to third-party customers.

These small steps in adopting technology resulted in 70% growth over an 18-month period. It improved the quality and traceability and production processes and started to develop confidence in digital skills.

Between 2015 and 2020, ASG grew to £40m turnover and developed a “Library of Digital Capability”, taking small accessible elements of technology and starting to integrate them.

“I could never have had done this without Innovate UK and the 60/40 match funding, which as an SME was absolutely vital,” Hague-Morgan concluded. “KTN was vital to bring together universities, the Catapult network, and in providing guidance of where to get the right help at the right time. We haven’t invented any of these ideas, but benefitted from being exposed to a range of technologies which we have been able to adapt to our own environment.”

Some of the key lessons that Hague-Morgan learnt included:

  • Start small with digital adoption;
  • For SMEs, integrating different digital technologies is powerful and game-changing;
  • A key barrier to digitalisation is skills and the culture towards change;
  • When recruiting, look at the hobbies and interests of people outside their work; and
  • Put young people together with experienced engineers and knowledge transfer will occur in both directions!

 

Podcasts of the Talking Industry Live sessions are available from https://talkingindustry.org/podcast and major podcast sites. Talking Industry Live will return next spring.

 

From robotics to AI

The Talking Industry Live keynote session was followed by three panel discussions. A snapshot of the discussions are highlighted below.

The full sessions are available to listen to as podcasts.

 

Robotics and Automation (with Mike Wilson, Chief Engineer – Automation – for the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, and Chief Automation Officer at the MTC; Stuart Coulton, Marketing Manager, Omron UK; David Dearden, Managing Director, Euchner UK; and Alan Sheppard, Managing Director, LCA Group).

After the keynote, it was sobering to reflect that the UK’s performance in adopting robotics is so slow.

Mike Wilson pointed out that the critical skills shortage and the departure of many EU workers may force the hands of many business owners, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. “As a consequence of that, our manufacturing has not been as successful as we would like, and it has been shrinking over the past 20 years,” he said. “We’ve offshored a lot of our manufacturing capability. And we really need to find a way of reversing that trend.”

The speakers worked through some of the factors that the UK needs to address. Dearden felt that larger organisations often exhibit short-term thinking, while the return-on-investment is not overnight. Coulton added that the UK’s financial infrastructure does not facilitate high-level investment in capital equipment, while noting that the country lacks system integration capacity. Sheppard sees both sides of the coin, both as a user of automation equipment and with customers looking to increase their automation levels. “I think one of our biggest challenges is around culture,” he said. “We are a fairly small country which is conservative in its business outlook. And I think we really do need to try and embrace change.

OEE and Digital Manufacturing (with Stuart Cartwright, Chief Engineer for Technology – Digital Engineering at the MTC; Duncan Stanton, Managing Director of Lamonde Automation; Luke Walsh, Managing Director of Brainboxes; and Sam Kirby, Industrial Automation Specialist at Novatech).

Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) is the gold standard for measuring manufacturing productivity. While there is a mathematical basis for it, with most UK manufacturers being below 60%, and more than half under 40%, this session focussed on some of the measures available to improve things.

The first thing which transpired was that the figures are not necessarily as bad as they appear! Walsh insisted that we should not fear the numbers and what they could mean, because that’s one of the first things that often puts people off from starting that journey.

“We see OEE is a great tool, but just one of those available when you when you are about digital manufacturing,” said Kirby.

“A lot of focus needs to be bringing on that base OEE level up, before you start focusing on productivity, otherwise you may be wasting your money,” Cartwright added.

Stanton emphasised the importance of human-machine interaction. “One of the things that is often overlooked with OEE is the semantics of the human interaction with machines, how quickly problems are reported and resolved. Because unless you’ve got a completely ‘human-less’ factory, you’re going to have some form of human intervention when that red or that amber light lamp comes on. And it’s often how that is dealt with, how it’s reported, that can drive efficiency forward. Getting information to an operator is as much part of solving the problem as having a more efficient machine.”

AI & Industrial Data (with Roman Kastusik, Lead Product Architect at T-DAB.AI; Mostafizur Rahman, Technology Manager AI & Data Science at the MTC; and Stuart McLeod, Technology Manager and Business Unit Lead, also a the MTC)

The final session covered technical aspects of AI and industrial data. The MTC’s Mostafizur Rahman said that applying AI to machines is a different challenge to applying it in other areas because of the number of variables, and the uncertainties in measuring and interpreting the data.

McLeod agreed: “A manufacturing system has to operate 24/7,” he said. “It’s a very complex system with large amounts of data, which could be data about production, quality, cost, performance, time, or critical information. They are all different and have to be handled in different ways.”

Roman Kastusik highlighted another aspect of the problem: “Starting small is always a good idea,” he suggested. “However, the problem that we often see a barrier to sort of scaling. If you want to train on data from hundreds of machines, the project suddenly becomes much more complicated. So many projects never leave the proof-of-concept (POC) stage. While it is necessary to start small, the path to big should be clearly mapped out. Otherwise, you might never get there.”

Running alongside the three panel discussions throughout the day were a series of six 45-minute exciting and highly topical seminars including presentations on Why condition monitoring? Why not? Vincent Burson – IFM; Mobile Robotics: Mobile, flexible & resilient – The factory of the future, Mike Payne – KUKA; Additive Manufacturing: Automated 3D Printing, Luke Rogers – AI Build; Collaborative Automation: Solving the UK Productivity Puzzle, Barry Graham – OMRON; Prepare for the Future Today, Nikesh Mistery – GAMBICA; and What is Made Smarter? The benefits of adopting digital technology within your business, Jim Vithanage – Made Smarter.

In addition, there were two in-depth workshops provided by the event’s content partners. Euchner UK’s session focused on managing equipment safety and cyber security in the modern factory. The second provided by Rittal/Eplan, covered smarter panel building.

There was also the opportunity for delegates to see ground-breaking products and innovations from KUKA, Werma, Motor Technology, Novotek, Euchner, Rittal, Eplan, Weidmuller, Omron, BCAS, Charter Controls, Made Smarter and many more, thanks to a micro exhibition that ran during the event.

Company info: Talking Industry