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Why investment in manufacturing technology is simply crucial; MANUFACTURING.


All good coaches will tell you that success is down to the combination of technique and attitude.

A sprinter with a poor attitude might still just win the race, because his technique pulls him through.

'Eddie the Eagle' had a fantastic attitude; he is one of the most positive people it has been my pleasure to meet, but no amount of self-belief or passion was ever going to make for up his lack of technique in ski-jumping.

It is the same in manufacturing. I don't care how dedicated you are, you are not going to compete against a 5-axis machining centre with a capstan lathe and a file.

Investment in new manufacturing technology is a competitive weapon, but too few companies are fighting with it.

Last week we were at an event at the National Metalforming Centre in West Bromwich, supported by BARA, the British Association for Robotics and Automation; not surprisingly the topics was robots, and why more people should use them.

Frankly I was shocked at some of the statistics that were given in the presentations.

For every 10,000 people employed in the UK in manufacturing there are approximately 40 robots; in the US that figure is around 90; in Germany it is around 170.

Even in Spain, considered to be a low-ish cost economy, the figure is over 90: more than twice as high as in the UK.

Perhaps we have seen the light and are catching up?

Taking the period running from 2000-2005, average annual sales of robots in the UK were around 1,100 units; in Germany it was 12,000 and in Spain more than 2,500.

That doesn't sound like catching up to me. I spoke to the president of BARA, Mike Wilson; I had to ask the question: what is China doing?

Answer: catching up; investing more in robotics that we are. Why, if their labour rates are so low, are the Chinese investing in robots?

For exactly the same reasons as we should be - better productivity, better predictability and quality, reduction in overheads (robots don't need a warm, well lit space) and the chance to take people out of unpleasant, even hazardous working environments.

UK average manufacturing labour rates are over pounds 10 per hour, compared to average robot running costs of around pounds 5 per hour.

Between 1990 and 2005 the average hourly wage has risen by around 74 per cent, whereas robot prices have fallen by 50 per cent.

This isn't hype; as someone who has bought several robots in the past, I know this to be true.

We still need people in manufacturing, but we need people doing the things that people are good at that robots aren't: being flexible, being imaginative, creative and innovative. We need wellskilled, well-paid people to programme the robots. It isn't just the big companies who use robots. I'm sure we've all seen the pictures of the big automotive body-in-white plants, with dozens of robots spot welding car bodies.

But only a few days ago I was in a foundry employing 50 people.

They have invested in industrial robots to perform a vital, but generally unpleasant, part of their manufacturing process.

This is the same company that has grown its business, expanded into a larger factory and celebrated it 30th birthday-well done Lost Wax Developments.

We have to invest; we just have to.

All we need now are low cost sources of finance and favourable tax incentives and we're laughing.

David Wright is chief executive of the Manufacturing Advisory Service West Midlands
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 25, 2007
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