Flexible, automated systems offer big opportunities for UK manufacturers to take the lead in today’s competitive markets, says Siemens Industry Automation
Britain’s hard-pressed manufacturers are looking to a new way of competing with low-cost goods from low-wage economies – mass customisation.
Mass customisation uses mass production methods to create batches of one – the exact product the customer needs – and the potential is huge. Customers are prepared to pay a considerable premium for products that fulfil their requirements and reflect their aspirations and lifestyles without the compromises of standard units, but the challenges are equally daunting.
Speed is key for mass customisation to work, because the product is competing with ready-made units offering instant gratification. It also presents a big opportunity for local manufacturers because if they can deliver a customised product in a few days, they can freeze out competitors who must ship their products halfway around the world.
The high turnaround speed needed can only be achieved at reasonable cost by flexible automation. Assembly lines controlled by Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) can switch in alternative components to build each unit to order – the process has already started in the computer sector, where PCs are routinely built to order, and the automotive sector is following suit.
People will increasingly expect to design their car in the showroom or online and pick it up a few weeks later, according to Brian Holliday, divisional director of Siemens Industry Automation, one of the leading suppliers of automation in Europe.
“The old American model where you build it, stick it on a lot and sell it at a discount is going. The new model is that you listen to what customer wants, make exactly that, and charge a premium,” he says.
“The aim is to bring the ultimate user much closer to production, to give them exactly what they want. It is mass production but on a customised basis.”
All sectors of industry, from electronics to pharmaceuticals and food, are being driven by the proliferation of products designed to address ever-smaller niche markets. One simple example of the trend, says Holliday, is the Mars Bar. It used to be produced in just a few sizes, but is now a brand that covers everything from fun-size to king-size bars and includes eggs, drinks, ice cream and mini rolls. “Industry is being driven by a proliferation of stock-keeping units and manufacturing has had to respond to give customers what they want,” he says.
“Take the Mars Bar – if you go back 15 years or so, there were around four stock-keeping units, but now they recognise all the market niches that have opened up and the Mars Bar is produced in stock-keeping units of something like 20 or more.”
However, moving to mass customisation means we can’t just focus on the high-tech, high-value manufacturing that Britain has specialised in over the last couple of decades, successful though that has been.
“We need to improve the link between our innovations and domestic manufacturing; and we need to make the UK better known worldwide for its ability to mass customise through flexible, automated manufacturing,” Holliday says.
“This latter aspect will improve the productivity of existing and new plants and enable domestic and foreign-owned companies to see the UK as the right manufacturing location for higher value customised goods.”
The automation industry has been investing heavily in the technology. Siemens alone has invested more than £800m a year globally in research and development. The most recent developments include the Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) Portal software designed to improve efficiency in system design, commissioning and operation which will help companies reduce time to market and increase production flexibility.
“One example of the creative use of software is Red Bull Racing. The current F1 champions designed vehicles using Siemens software, which allows them to capture ideas and incorporate them instantly in the design and production process to help produce race-winning cars more quickly than the competition,” Holliday says.
Siemens has also introduced much new safety technology which minimises risk to people, the environment and valuable assets, which not only ensures compliance with legislative and reporting requirements, but reduces both capital and operational costs.
The cost of automating has also been dramatically reduced by the introduction of wireless technology linking the smart devices that increasingly feature on the shop floor, eliminating costly and inflexible cabling. This is something of a technological feat in the notoriously aggressive electromagnetic environment of the average shop floor.
Siemens has also developed suites of software to integrate the process of design and manufacture to speed the process and allow the flexibility mass customisation needs, while ensuring traceability, minimisation of inventory and wastage and compliance with legislative requirements. British industry must grasp the nettle now, Holliday argues, saying that many companies fear automation for cutting jobs rather than considering it a way to release workers for more productive jobs and to achieve higher output.
“It is the UK’s Achilles’ heel in that we have tended to be overprotective of jobs, existing methods, how we have always done things and short-term finance, taking a fairly aggressive stance on payback that hold us back from automating,” Holliday says. “The upside is that job and supply security can be derived from a more skilled workforce of technicians and engineers.”
The government seems to understand the need to support manufacturing industry, as shown by the proposal to provide a grant of £57m to protect and enhance the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) at a time when regional budgets are being slashed.
High-value manufacturing in such areas as aerospace and luxury cars are already a strength of British engineering, and the government has recognised this by creating the £200m High Value Manufacturing Technology Innovation Centre under the leadership of the Technology Strategy Board, to showcase and further develop British innovation and technology.
However, says Holliday, Britain needs to move towards more mass-market manufacturing as well to create a broad engineering base and beat off the challenge from the Far East and other low-wage economies.
“Even in high-value sectors such as aerospace, automation technology is key to improving quality, consistency and traceability,” he says. “When digital design tools are linked to digital automation systems, much Eastern advantage can be neutralised. Engineers and technology should be at the forefront of our development of the low-carbon and high-value manufacturing sectors.”