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Automation and data: The answer to driving efficiencies in the manufacturing sector?


Clarion recently held its annual automation and robotics seminar, an event we’ve been hosting for the past five years.

Over that time period, it’s been interesting to see just how rapidly this particular agenda appears to be evolving and especially in relation to manufacturing data. From 2015, when we announced that ‘The robots are coming’ to 2018 when we asked if they were ‘Friend or foe’, up to this year when it would appear that we’re not only increasingly comfortable around robots – especially as we hosted three of them in our reception throughout the seminar - but we’re also increasingly comfortable investing in robotics and automation.

Given this, many businesses are looking to see how they can capitalise on all the manufacturing data that automated or robotic processes are creating. Increasingly, the data allows businesses to gain insight across business processes. It can potentially help you see areas for innovation or better ways to collaborate with customers or suppliers. What can we learn from this data and how do we go about it?

To explore this topic in more detail, we invited a number of leaders in this field to explain how businesses get the most out of their manufacturing data to an audience of more than 60 representatives, from a broad cross-section of the manufacturing sector.

The use of data in the manufacturing sector

Steve Crow, Clarion’s Business Development Director, hosted the seminar and kicked things off by setting the scene: “Companies using Industry 4.0-based principles are finding that they bring people, processes and equipment together, from sensors and smart devices to entire systems. Connectivity deepens operators’ understanding of events and sharpens decision-making. The proliferation of smarter end points, data analytics, scalable computing, mobility and visualisation are reshaping the future of industrial automation.

“Industry 4.0 solutions help to better gather and analyse data, and transform it into actionable, real-time insightful information. This supports the connection of global operations to the enterprise and extended business systems, allowing for better collaboration, faster problem-solving and improved innovation. Equipment and devices become intelligent assets capable of reporting production information, enabling faster and better business decisions that can help increase productivity, quality and help to meet demand more precisely and cost-effectively. In the US, 35% of manufacturers now collect and use data generated by smart sensors to enhance manufacturing and operating processes.”

Steve was followed by Jonathan Matthews from Rolls Royce Plc, who is Head of Delivery, Ecosystem R2 Data Labs. He explained that he is responsible for producing the operational performance of the organisation’s digital ecosystem, working in collaboration with the company’s Business Units and its Innovation Hub. He also outlined the three core objectives of the R2 Data Labs team: identify, and engage with best-in-class external partners to accelerate Rolls-Royce’s future data innovation technology capabilities; disrupt and co-create value; and enable and rapidly execute the delivery of the Rolls-Royce Group and R2 Data Labs strategy.

Our second speaker was Richard Corderoy, Managing Director of Leeds based The Oakland Group. Oakland help organisations use their data to solve problems, looking at a company’s whole operational ecosystem and aligning their processes, their data, their systems and their people to create sustainable change and solve complex operational and supply chain challenges. By analysing data, Oakland can not only recognise an organisation’s historical trends via descriptive analytics but move beyond, using prescriptive analytics, to allow them to make recommendations for future actions, improvements and smart, future-focused decisions, based on the original descriptive data.

And the newest, and most exciting, use of data is via predictive analytics, where algorithms can sort through massive amounts of data to create forecasts about the future, from predicting errors in data quality and process failure points to delivering you exactly the content you want to see without you having to search for it. The possibilities are endless. Richard guided our attendees through the analytics process with practical tips for getting started.

Legal issues surrounding data use

The next speaker brought us all back to the real world by reminding us of the legal issues around the use of data. Sue Streatfield, a Partner in the Intellectual Property (IP) Team at Clarion gave us the benefit of her knowledge and expertise, talking us through the law surrounding data. There are no legal rights in data, but there are extensive legal rights relating to data, including the rights to, and the restrictions, on its use. Sue also discussed the handling of personal data and the laws which govern that, including the one everyone in the UK is most familiar with – GDPR.

Sue was followed by Lisa Lister, owner of Progress Marketing and Mark Godfrey, Managing Director of Saftronics Ltd, who specialise in process control systems and LV (low voltage) switchboards for a wide variety of applications across many industrial sectors. Together, Lisa and Mark discussed the funds available to SMEs, talking about how Saftronics was able to access two of these funds (LEPs Strategic Business Growth Programme and the Manufacturing Growth Programme) and the benefits the company accrued from this support.

Industrial robots

The final speaker was Mark Gray, who is the UK Sales Manager for Universal Robots, a Danish manufacturer of industrial robots. Mark explained that, when the company was formed in 2005, its founders thought that the robotics market was dominated by heavy, expensive and unwieldy robots and they wanted to make robot technology accessible to small and medium-sized businesses. Mark also told us about the company’s ‘cobot’ or collaborative robot, which is made up of smaller, more flexible robot arms for use in industrial settings. A human can move the cobot in a particular way and the cobot will remember and repeat the action. This means it can be used to do repetitive tasks that require high levels of accuracy, in situations where a person may find the work too onerous or monotonous to ensure precision. Plus, the cobot is very safe; it has external sensors that ensure a human can stop the cobot easily.

The event ended with a short Q and A session, compered once again by Steve Crow, who said he was “delighted to see such a great turnout. The pace of change within this sector is astonishing and it’s amazing what can now be achieved with not only automation and robotics but also the data that they produce. They say that over the last two years alone, 90% of the data in the world was generated. It’s good to know that at least some of it is being put to better use than as a post on social media!”

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