As we mentioned in our previous blog post, October was an event-filled month at Automata. Hot on the heels of PPMA (the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association’s event), we attended Robotics & Automation in Coventry. What started as a relatively small event in Milton Keynes has now expanded to a bigger venue and includes both hardware and software companies, from warehouse management through to industrial automation solutions like robot arms.
What really struck us was the difference between attendees at R&A and previous trade shows we had attended, including Hannover Messe; here, manufacturers we spoke with understood how automation could be a solution to their problem. For the team, it was an opportunity to learn about a wide variety of challenges and listen to a series of very interesting talks, from SME manufacturers in niche markets through to bigger players like John Lewis.
So, considering the nature of attendees at the show, how different were our conversations and what did we learn this time?
1) Hiring and retaining staff are major challenges for SME manufacturers
Whether we’re talking about retaining highly qualified and experienced staff, or engaging with younger members of their workforce, manufacturers find that labour is still a pain point for them. The appeal of automation is clear to them, but it goes beyond just a simple numbers game; if they are able to free their workers from the boring, menial tasks that need to be performed, without having to increase headcount through temporary staff, manufacturers are then able to focus their attention on improving efficiency and productivity in their factories. Automation goes part of the way to solving this, and can include the creation of new roles and value-add operations in their processes.2) Moving into automation is a highly complex decision
Manufacturers might know why they want to start automating, and they might even have considered how they’ll go about it, but the journey is not always a smooth and painless one. There are a number of points they need to consider when scoping out an automation project (some of which we’ve covered in our Essential SME checklist for success with robotics), but one of the key arguments that came up across several discussions is that these projects also take time - which manufacturers may not always factor into their decision-making process. In some cases, this is due to the complexity of integration, in others because the factories themselves require new equipment to be purchased before robots can be added to the production line. These unexpected costs can delay projects and should be anticipated as much as possible.
3) Competition is a critical concern for SME manufacturers
Competition from China, Singapore and India is increasing and SME manufacturers in the UK and Europe are finding that they have to expand their offerings and need to move from R&D into production as quickly as possible - which drives up their costs and headcounts if they are not prepared to embrace automation. This means that they now adjusting both their processes and their factory layouts, which adds months, if not years, to a project, and increases overheads. Alongside the labour retention issue, competition can prove to be a blocker to manufacturers’ growth.
4) The importance of getting ROI from investments quickly
One of the main reasons that manufacturers are attracted to the idea of affordable automation is that they can achieve ROI quicker than with traditional industrial solutions. For one, the overall cost of the solution is lower and by being able to engage their employees with more value-add operations, they can ensure that they achieve ROI within a 12-24 month window. In one workshop discussion, the manufacturer even mentioned that they achieved ROI within the year - all while the robot only worked for 10 minutes of every hour it was ‘on shift’.
We rounded off the year with the Bot Talks event on 20th November in Bristol, where we discussed the challenges of affordable automation for SME manufacturers, the types of solutions they’re deploying and what the future holds for them in Industry 4.0.
If you want to learn more about our mission to democratise robotics, and how we’re helping SMEs automate, please get in touch and we’ll get back to you.