Tag Archives: Robotics

For almost 140 years, The Expanded Metal Company has driven product innovation in its sector, producing metal mesh products for construction materials, filters, grilles, walkways and visually striking architectural meshes. The Expanded Metal Company was founded by the patentee of expanded metal, John French Goulding and has been operating on the same site since in 1889. Refusing to rest on its laurels, the company tapped into SAM expertise to help ensure the smooth introduction of a new product line. The company was developing a modular cages range and accessed support from the team of University of Sunderland-based experts to help ensure smooth production processes and iron out some minor design challenges.

Future focus at metal mesh marvels

The opportunity of working with SAM specialists was music to the ears of a firm of Hartlepool metal experts.

For almost 140 years, The Expanded Metal Company has driven product innovation in its sector, producing metal mesh products for construction materials, filters, grilles, walkways and visually striking architectural meshes.

The Expanded Metal Company was founded by the patentee of expanded metal, John French Goulding and has been operating on the same site since in 1889. Refusing to rest on its laurels, the company tapped into SAM expertise to help ensure the smooth introduction of a new product line.

The company was developing a modular cages range and accessed support from the team of University of Sunderland-based experts to help ensure smooth production processes and iron out some minor design challenges.

Managing Director, Phil Astley, said: “The main benefit of the SAM team is that it allows companies like ours to quickly access the exact expertise and guidance required when embarking on a new project.

“I was very impressed with their support and having first met with Roger O’Brien, we met his team at the University of Sunderland and before long we were working closely with them on the redesign of our security cage.”

The company has developed a “flat pack” security cage, a modular system that can be tailored to meet the exacting requirements of clients, which is shipped in a relatively small consignment and assembled on-site.

Kalem Ainsley, Technical Manager and Ryan Pinder, Operations Manager and Head of Continuous Improvement at The Expanded Metal Company worked with SAM’s automation and robotics expert, Neil Taylor, and CAD design expert, Ian Barrett, to hone design specifications and create clear, smooth production processes ahead of the product’s launch at the end of last year.

“By being able to transport the cage packed flat on a pallet we’re being more efficient and reducing our own carbon footprint, as we’re not transporting empty space,” added Phil.

“Alongside the development of our website, which allows customers to configure the cages to meet their own unique needs, this new solution is perfect for a wealth of sectors, as customers can select their own dimensions, colours, whether the cages need wheels…anything they require really.”

Employing 86 people, the Expanded Metal Company has also developed a range of innovative fencing systems and security solutions and serves sectors including construction, filtration, automotive, aerospace, architecture, manufacturing and engineering, agriculture, acoustics and security.

Ian Barrett, CAD and CAM specialist at the SAM Project, said: “The Expanded Metal Company may have been around for almost a century and a half, but it remains laser-focused on setting the pace in the future.

“It was a fantastic experience working with a business that boasts so much knowledge of its sector but remains open and enthusiastic about adopting new technology and processes.”

Robotics expert Neil Taylor provides an insight into the world of manufacturing automation...

A manufacturers guide to… robotics

When I first got involved with robotics back in the early 80s, I naively didn’t even know what a robot was.

Starting out as a welder, the plant superintendent pulled me aside one day to ask if I’d be interested in becoming a robot programmer.

The company had purchased 10 industrial welding robots and my job was to learn all I could and ensure we were able to put them to use.

And put them to use we did. By the time I’d taken early retirement in 2018, we had successfully deployed over 1,400 individual robots across our plant, here in the North East.

The growth of the industry was phenomenal, and the automotive sector wasn’t the only one profiting. Industrial robots had arrived across the manufacturing spectrum and I was seeing this with my own eyes.

I took up a role with a major Japanese robotic supplier before setting up my own consultancy and helping install over 1,000 industrial robots across Europe, the US and Asia.

I was always in my element with a robot teach pendant in my hand and if this experience taught me anything, it was that the robotic revolution was well and truly underway…and it was no longer just for the blue chips and major corporates.

Returning to the North East, I began working with the SAM Project to help the region’s SMEs break down barriers to automation and robotics, just as our team did all those years ago.

In the two years since, the role has seen me work with everyone from sole traders to firms employing hundreds, helping them better understand and implement everything from robotic welding to automated canning lines and palletising robotics.

But it wasn’t until we held a recent jobs fair at The Industry Centre that I really had my eyes opened to the current issues facing the region’s employers and how robotics could help them innovate and grow.

The vast majority of manufacturers are facing huge challenges when sourcing skilled robotic engineers, which I predict will spark yet another robotic revolution.

Not like the previous one in the 80’s and 90’s, but a new generation of automation. It’ll be “The Rise of The Cobots”.

When I first took on the role at SAM, one thing that jumped out at me, not literally, was a Cobot or ‘Collaborative Robot’, sitting in the corner of the room.

Having been involved with industrial robots for the best part of 40 years, my initial thought was “its not a real robot, it’s something that will keep children happy, a toy”. How wrong was I?

It’s collaborative. It’s designed to work with you. It doesn’t stop for a break or to browse social media and it works in a “lights out environment”.

Not only that, it’s also easy to teach and can be deployed just about anywhere to do just about anything. For an industry facing a critical skills shortage, the Cobot could well be the sector’s saviour.

Automation promotes growth and, I believe, the Cobot could well overtake what we witnessed during the original robot revolution, so much so that the industrial robotic manufacturers are now even developing their own collaborative robots.

Cobots can and will fill the gaps in the current labour market. The UK manufacturing base is slowly waking up to the fact that Cobots can take away all of the dull, dangerous and dirty jobs, with increased output per hour, and just like 30 years ago, SMEs are fast realising the benefits.

So, if you’re an SME in the North East and have applications that you think could be automated, any mundane repetitive tasks, or simply a concept you would like to investigate automating, then why not contact the team today?

Our team of industry experts and academics have over 250 years’ industry experience, so whatever your challenge, you can guarantee they’ll have seen it before…

  • Neil Taylor, Automation & Robotics Expert at The SAM Project.
Robotics Specialist

Breaking down the barriers to robotics

Neil Taylor, Automation & Robotics Specialist, explains why embracing robotics is key to ensuring SME manufacturers remain competitive.

When I was first appointed Robotics Programmer at the then Tallent Engineering, back in the early 1980s, the technology was often seen as somewhat of a threat to jobs, and a far-fetched concept by many others.

Based out of Aycliffe Business Park, in County Durham, Tallent Engineering, now Gestamp, was one of the first non-OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to embrace robotics, and as a result grew from being a multi-product manufacturer with just a single site, which had a handful of robots, into one of the world’s leading automotive Tier One suppliers, specialising in specifically in chassis and suspension products in just a matter of years.

Having started out as a welder, my role as robotics programmer initially saw the company invest in 10 robots, which at that time, none of the staff had even heard of and saw productivity increase significantly, helping us ramp up the output of parts we were producing for the Ford Sierra, improving quality and drastically reducing lead times.

Fast-forward 40 years and Gestamp now has over 1,200 robots operating at its Newton Aycliffe site alone, (the largest none OEM population of robots on one site in Europe), with tens of thousands more in operation across the globe – ranging from robotic welding, both MIG & Spot, machine tending, bushing, inspection and palletising. Robots have been key to that growth and success, along with challenging the norms of traditional production.

However, despite the rapid advancement of robotic technology over the last few decades and the heightened adoption of automated processes by the majority of automotive OEMs and Tier One suppliers, many manufacturing SMEs are still yet to harness and embrace the potential of robotics within their operations, often believing them to be out of reach price wise or technologically challenging.

For many, their reservations are predisposed to thinking that they would unable to afford the technology, that the costs will far outweigh the business benefits, or that the skills required are out of reach, however this couldn’t be further from the truth in the majority of cases, especially with the emergence of technology such as collaborative robots (cobots).

Here at the ERDF-funded Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project, we have a team of technical experts working shoulder-to-shoulder with the region’s SME manufacturers to help break down the barriers to embracing new technology and improving processes.

One such company to benefit from the support is Almet.  The Washington-based specialist fabrication business is set to increase its factory size by 12,000 sq  ft over the coming months as it invests in robotic technology in a bid to enhance its processes. Working with the team at SAM, Almet was able to explore how the use of robotic welding technology could benefit its business, as well as tapping into the funding required to support the purchase of its new equipment. It was also able to weigh up the various alternative and benefits of deploying either cobots or traditional industrial robots based upon their specific applications, needs, volumes and repeat orders.

Another success story to arise from SAM’s fully-funded support is Pilgrim Spirit. Based in Alnwick, the premium brand gin producer was able to receive an in-person proof of concept demonstration of state-of-the-art cobot technology. This demonstrated that manual handling errors could be significantly reduced and even eliminated by using an automate process, whilst allowing them to increase productivity and utilise what would otherwise be downtime by extending operations to a 24 hour basis. This is subsequently to be deployed in their facilities following on from the engagement with the SAM Project. Initially they had paid a visit to our home at the University of Sunderland’s Industry Centre to find out more about 3D printing, but following on from this and seeing the potential after paying a visit to our six specialist factory areas, which have seen over £1m invested in new technology, they broadened their thinking and looked at how automation could benefit them.

Boasting everything from robotic welding cells to palletising robotics, collaborative robots, sensors and automation, latest virtual/augmented reality technology, sophisticated 3D printers, including metal printers, plus much more, the factories provide the region’s SMEs with an opportunity to test out advancements in their sector prior to making substantial financial investment and has been well received by the industry since its launch in 2018. 

Not only do these facilities allow companies to fully-understand how the technology works and how it is relevant but, similar to Almet, it also allows the companies to access matched-funding grants to support the purchase and installation of these technologies for their business.

Recent independent reports show that companies who engaged in the first phase of the SAM Project reported significant growth and improvements, including such things as improved layout, increased productivity, being more competitive through adoption of latest technology and increases in quality.

Companies such as Almet and Pilgrim Spirit have seen business skyrocket, creating new jobs and winning numerous new clients or opening up new markets as a result of technology adoption, and specially robotics and automation.

Yet, despite a recent report by the British Automation & Robotics Association (BARA) revealing that UK industrial robot sales were up 7.5% in 2020 on the previous year, there are still scores of manufacturing SMEs across the North East that are yet to have their eyes opened to the huge, somewhat untapped potential of robotic technology and the support on offer to help them steal a lead on the competition.

While it’s pleasing and reassuring to see sales of industrial robotics increase, we must continue encouraging more of the region’s manufacturers, particularly our SMEs, to explore all of the avenues of support available to them as we look to step out from the pandemic on the strongest possible footing and ensure UK manufacturing becomes more and continues to remain competitive on the global stage.

It is significant to note that the UK lags behind other major manufacturing economies in its use of robotics, so not only can SMEs increase local market share, but they can also explore wider markets and bigger potential that have previously been untapped.

Not only do robotics help significantly improve productivity, but they can also lead to reduced operating costs, improved quality and less material waste and in order to further build on this heightened demand for industrial automation, we must continue to champion projects such as SAM.

So, if you’re a small to medium sized manufacturer, or even a business looking to begin manufacturing, talk to SAM today to find out how the support could benefit your business.

It could be just the push you need to step your business up a gear, be that via automation or any of the other technologies or product and process design support on offer from within the SAM team…

Almet using robots

Rise of the robots aids Almet expansion

ROBOT-tech is boosting business at a North East metal fabricators.

Specialist fabricators, Almet, is expecting turnover to increase by 40%, as it prepares to invest in state-of-the-art robotic welding technology and increase its factory size.

The Washington-based business is laying the groundwork to increase its factory size by 12,000 sq ft as it invests in technology to enhance processes, following support from the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project.

The company, created in 1995, started out supplying large businesses in the region with general metalwork requirements and soon expanded into the automotive and yellow goods industries. From one-off bespoke prototypes to batch production items, Almet manufactures and supplies a diverse range of products to customers including Nissan, Komatsu and Caterpillar.  

As the business developed, Almet built an in-house paint plant as well as launching their sister company Temla Laser, which is ran by Paul’s daughter Hayley and son Paul, providing the latest in laser cutting technology keeping up with the demand for services with a quick turnaround.

Working with manufacturing experts from the SAM Project, Almet explored the use of robotic welding technology sooner than anticipated, as well as receiving funding that will support with paint plant machinery and the purchase and installation of a cure oven.

Paul Almond, director at Almet, said: “The SAM Project has helped us with several programmes, the latest one being robotic welding. The support is invaluable to us, as we didn’t know the ins and outs of robotic welding, or if it would suit our process. SAM was able to show us live demonstrations and explore what we could actually achieve with the machines.

“We may have invested in this technology in the future, but it would have taken us considerably longer – probably another couple of years – to get there without the support from SAM. Now we’re looking to invest in robotics within the next six months, so they have really sped up the process and allowed us to get there faster, which is important to stay competitive within this industry.”

Almet is also expanding into the adjoining unit, increasing its current 17,000 sq ft factory to 29,000 sq ft. This will allow the business to move and expand its paint plant – currently based across the road – keeping everything under one roof.

Paul said: “The expansion will see us move our paint plant into the new factory so that we can take in higher quality paintwork and attract additional business. SAM is also helping us in the form of grant assistance to purchase a new oven and spray booth.

“Now that we’re getting the facilities in place, as a target within two years, we’d like to increase the turnover for both Almet and Temla by 40% and this will without a doubt create new, highly skilled jobs.”

He added: “The SAM team couldn’t have been more helpful. The main thing is the support and the feasibility study. They look at products and business to help implement technology much faster. They’re on the money and really know their stuff.”

The Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project is a £10.9m collaboration between the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the University of Sunderland and the Northern Powerhouse Initiative and Industry, supporting the implementation of product and process development and the introduction of technology within the SME manufacturing base in the North-East Local Enterprise Partnership (NE LEP) area.

Roger O’Brien, head of AMAP, said: “It’s a pleasure to work with Paul and the team at Almet to help them explore how new technology such as robotic welding can improve processes, as well provide access to grant assisted funding to support business growth.

“The SAM Project was set up to help the region’s SME manufacturers improve processes and unlock potential in terms of innovation and growth. Almet is a great example of this in action and we wish them all the best as they continue to grow.”