Tag Archives: Advanced Manufacturing

Clearly Drinks caps off record year with ambitious growth plans

A North East soft drinks manufacturer has seen sales fizz after investing £6million into a new canning line and entering into its best year to date.

Clearly Drinks, which manufactures its own branded products as well as providing a contract bottling service to some of the industry’s biggest names, is expecting revenue to double this year after tripling its capacity to 160 million litres over the last three years.

The continued investment by the company into its award-winning Sunderland plant is part of a wider investment programme which has seen the company expand into new markets, differentiate from its competitors, increase sustainability and launch new product lines.

Led by chief executive Mick Howard, who joined the company in 2018 having spent over 30 years in senior technical roles overseeing the operations of major brands across Africa and Europe including SAB Miller, the investment is the largest in the company’s 135-year history, helping futureproof the firm and bring it in-line with industry standards.

Mick said: “To make such an investment during a pandemic was a brave and courageous decision however it is one that has really paid off for the business. 

“Not only has it helped us bring new products to market but it has also seen our headcount exceed 100 employees and made the business much more agile. It’s a really exciting time for everyone involved with Clearly Drinks.”

Founded in 1885, Clearly Drinks originally started life as Fenwick & Sons before rebranding to Villa Drinks, a name synonymous with the North East which is still remembered fondly by people across the region and who’s iconic ghost sign adverts can still be seen on the gable ends of red-brick buildings across Tyne & Wear.

Today, the company employs over 100 people and remains deep-rooted in the local community by creating apprenticeships for local people through its annual recruitment programme and supporting local charities such as the Salvation Army, as well as maintaining a strong working relationship with Sunderland College.

Mick added: “Having been born and raised in the North East, I know the story behind Villa and was delighted when I was approached to take on the mantle of helping steer this historic business into the 21st century.

“I knew how much the company meant to the local community and its employees, therefore we made it our mission to ensure everyone was on board with our growth plans while continuing to invest in the community and give back to those that have given so much to this business over the past century.”

As well as investing in a state-of-the-art canning line, the company has also purchased a new pasteurisation unit and nitrogen dosing system which have led to the creation of 10 new jobs and helped the company land its largest contract to date with a national wholesaler.

Clearly Drinks’ Tracy Mallam with SAM’s Dionne Clark.

The total investment, which is over £6.5million, was supported by the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project, which provided technical support to help the company integrate the new technology into its business, as well as a £50,000 grant towards the purchase of the new pasteurisation unit.

“The support from SAM was fantastic,” Mick said. “The process was super-simple and allowed us to not only tap into funding to help de-risk our investment somewhat, but also receive the technical expertise required to ensure we maximise the potential of the new equipment and technology.

“For a business like us, in the current landscape, it can be quite hard tapping into funding and support when you’re looking to scale and the team at the SAM Project really went above and beyond to help us.”

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, project and technical lead at the SAM Project, said: “Clearly Drinks is a real North East success story and we’re delighted to have been able to support the company on its incredible growth journey.

“The investment in the new canning line and pasteurisation unit will not only help make the business more sustainable but it will also allow it to realise its potential and continue growing its presence across the globe. We’d like to wish them all the best for the future.”

Vision system helps packaging manufacturer freshen up its act

A fast-growing food packaging manufacturer is the latest business to box clever and benefit from the SAM Project’s electronics and industry 4.0 support.

The experts at SAM recently worked with a North East packaging specialist to help the company understand how electronics technology could improve product quality and eliminate manual visual checks which was adversely affecting their manufacturing line.

After visiting our state-of-the-art test factory at the University of Sunderland, the company – which supplies packaging to a major blue-chip client – was able to trial technologies such as Portable Monitoring Systems and a Vision Systems to understand how they could benefit their production process.

The goal was to eliminate faulty ‘black-spots’ items from its assembly line of transparent packaging, with the end-goal of increasing product quality and output, making the company’s operations more sustainable and profitable.

Working with Richard Eynon, SAM’s Industry 4.0 and Electronics Specialist, the company was able to achieve its goals after being introduced to a Vision System (Balluff), which helped it meet the ever-increasing requirements for maximum quality and greater flexibility within modern production plants.

This new quality checking process – through the implementation of a Vision System – has since resulted in the company eliminating almost every transparent container with inclusions from its production lines.

Richard said: “Each and every company that engages with the SAM Project has a unique challenge, be it improving quality, reducing lead-times or slashing costs and this client was no different”.

“Working with a blue-chip client, the company has to ensure the products it supplies meet the most stringent of standards, placing a huge strain on the company’s quality control teams and leading to heavy lead-times during periods of heavy production”.

“However, after sitting down with the company, we were able to identify how a Vision System was able to detect an issue and subsequently identify faulty products which could be eliminated from the production line using its digital ports (air, paddle…)

“Not only did this take the strain away from the quality control teams but it also helped the company improve product quality by reducing the number of products that could potentially be identified further down the line”.

“As engineers, we love a challenge and we love working with the latest technology, so this was a great project that really got our brains ticking.”

The company has also taken on additional resources as a result of the support it received from Richard and the SAM team and is confident that it is now on track to record zero detectable failures across its entire operation.

Bignall Group Shildon SAM Project

Big changes at Bignall Group, thanks to SAM expertise

A firm of County Durham engineers has stripped hours from its manufacturing times and is planning to venture into new markets, thanks to an elite team of experts. 

Bignall Group is saving hundreds of manhours, investing in new machinery and already planning the second phase of its project working with a team of specialists from the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project. 

SAM – which offers a range of support to SME manufacturing businesses in the North East LEP area – supported the Shildon-based operation following a full survey of Bignall Group’s production and workflow management systems, helping the company pinpoint bottlenecks in the process and then develop a plan for addressing the issues. 

Bignall Group general manager, Mark Coatsworth, said the expertise of the SAM Project team had been vital in helping identify areas where improvements could be made. 

“We were already examining our workflow system and identifying areas where we could eliminate bottlenecks and remove waste from the manufacturing process,” said Mark. “Bringing in the SAM team really helped speed that process up and we benefited from the fresh sets of eyes looking at how we operated. 

“Like all businesses, we are always looking at ways to be more efficient, save on costs and generally just improve the way we do things. SAM really boosted that process, in one instance tackling a challenge in our sawing process that previously took a minute to remedy, but now takes about four seconds. 

“We worked out the machines that were operating over-capacity and we addressed it, quickly speccing up two new pieces of kit that not only alleviated the capacity pressures, but expanded our ability to do more. 

“Projects like SAM are essential to help firms, like ours, take that leap forward and begin operating on another level.” 

Bignall Group is made up of three complimentary businesses, Shildon Manufacturing Company provides CNC machining; Cobtec Cubicle Hardware supplies cubicle ironmongery into construction projects all across Europe; and Masterlube Systems designs, builds and distributes grease and oil lubrication systems worldwide from its facility in Shildon, County Durham. 

SAM support not only helped pinpoint bottlenecks in the company’s systems, but also invest in a new 4-axis CNC machine and CNC lathe. 

For over 40 years Bignall Group has been designing and developing light engineered products, with a manufacturing facility and multiple product groups. Selling in 20 countries across multiple industries, the company puts design and innovation at the core of everything it does. It currently employs 32 people, who work across all three businesses. 

“Working with the SAM team last summer was an excellent experience and one that I’m very much looking forward to again, with the beginning of phase II of the project,” added Mark. “To be able to tap into that industry expertise has been invaluable for us. 

“I’d absolutely recommend SAM to any SME looking to make efficiencies or improvements.” 

Shildon Manufacturing Company remained open throughout the pandemic, with its clients providing items used in the NHS and the company even ventured into the world of PPE production at one point, designing, manufacturing and donating equipment to frontline workers.

Neil Taylor, automation and robotics specialist for the SAM Project, said: “Bignall Group is a fantastic cluster of businesses, each of which is really blazing a trail in its respective sector. It is a fantastic example of a company that has harnessed our region’s traditional industrial strengths and married them with leading-edge innovation. 

“I look forward to continuing the great experience of working with the team at Bignall Group.” 

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. 

SAM offers four key support functions to businesses gearing up to grow, including access to technical expertise, with industrial specialists using their skill and expertise to guide businesses through the process of understanding and implementing technology; R&D, with a team of researchers able to support with the development of new products and processes; factories and facilities, including access to £1m of industry-leading advanced technology and equipment; and its grants scheme, that offers financial assistance to qualifying businesses. 

SOLIDWORKS with SAM

SAM brings SOLIDWORKS to the North East

Solid Solutions are partnering with SAM Project to deliver a discovery session on funding and implementing world leading 3D CAD for your business.

Providers of SOLIDWORKS 3D CAD, Solid Solutions, have been delivering and supporting software and training to over 17,000 businesses for 20 years. Now, you can start your journey by attending this first look technical seminar to discover where SOLIDWORKS will take your product or business.

And to help facilitate your next step, SAM Project can provide eligible SMEs with access to grant funding*, expertise and facilities. This partnership between ERDF and University of Sunderland, is specifically for the introduction of technology and implementation of product and process development.

What’s more, you will get a free guided tour of the facilities available at the SAM Project, located at the Industry Centre, Sunderland.

Register for free here.

EVENT SCHEDULE

• 09:00 – 09:30 – Arrival, coffee and introductions

• 09:30 – 10:30 – SOLIDWORKS 2022 First Look

• 10:30 – 10:45 – Break

• 10:45 – 11:15 – SOLIDWORKS Portfolio and Services Overview

• 11:15 – 11:45 – SAM Project Introduction

• 11:45 – 12:15 – SAM Project facilities tour

• 12:30 – Close

*grants subject to availability

**registration details will be shared with the SAM Project and Solid Solutions Group Ltd.

Carl Gregg Additive Manufacturing

Meet the Experts: Carl Gregg, Product and Process Design Specialist

Carl Gregg, product and process design specialist, has helped open the eyes of hundreds of SME manufacturers to the potential of additive manufacturing.

In its earliest form, Additive Manufacturing (AM) – or 3D printing as it is often referred to – has been with us since the early 80s and it should be no surprise that the technology has evolved significantly since then.

We are now at a stage where functional parts can be produced that can potentially outperform those which are conventionally manufactured. Prototyping remains a major use for additive manufacturing, however the days that 3D printing’s sole use was to produce non-functional prototype parts is over and increasingly, there is a trend emerging within the industry where additive manufacturing is being used for far more impactful means.

Our Prototype and Innovation Factory is home to a range of 3D printers that range from very basic (but still very useful) to advanced industrial machines. We even have a large format 3D printer that has a print area of 1mx1mx0.7m that can rapidly produce large parts that would usually need to be split apart to print on numerous printers.

In terms of advanced materials, we also boast two printers from market-leading 3D Printer manufacturer MarkForged (Metal X and Mark Two). The Metal X is able to print metal parts in a range of materials such as stainless steel, tools steels, Inconel and copper. This same printer was recently utilised for a project to produce an alternative to a cast part that was needed for testing. The lead time to produce the initial casting was six weeks compared to the production time on the Metal X which was just a few days.

We have had similar successes with the Mark Two system, which allows us to produce composite reinforced parts. The printer is fantastic for producing components that require highly functional parts such as machining fixtures or end of arm tools. The printer achieves this in two ways. Firstly, the material that is used to produce the parts is a blend of nylon and chopped carbon fibre, however the feature that sets this printer apart is its ability to inlay continuous fibre reinforcement such as carbon fibre or Kevlar. This fibre reinforcement allows us to produce plastic parts that have a similar functional strength to 6061 aluminium.

For higher volumes of production, we have an HP Multi Jet machine that can produce accurate, highly detailed parts in batches in an overnight run. Increasingly, companies are seeing this as a viable alternative to injection moulding for shorter runs of under 10k. The printed parts from the HP machine are air and watertight and some interesting case uses have been found to exploit this, such as, incorporating vacuum lines into end of arm tooling to produce a part that cuts out numerous assembly steps.

A common trait that we do see is that the 3D printing can increase the band width of conventional machines. For example, the printers need very little oversight when compared to CNC machining and they’re very easy and quick set up. Typically, a machine could be set up with a “digital warehouse” of jigs, fixtures, end of arm tooling, etc. and they can be called off with only a button press. This can reduce lead time and cost for any production change over and to ensure your machines keep running.

3D-Digital-Twinning

Meet our Simulation and 3D Digital Twinning expert

Rita Potts is the Business Process Improvement and Simulation Specialist at the SAM Project, specialising in 3D digital twinning and simulation.

Simulation has historically been primarily used by larger organisations and for major installation programs in the planning and de-risking of major change.

However, here at SAM, we’re helping break down these barriers to entry for SMEs by allowing them to test and understand the benefits of the latest 3D simulation software by applying the knowledge and techniques often used by major corporates to their operations.

We have numerous examples of companies benefiting from this, such as through our plant layout projects. Similar to the way large organisations use the software, we can help SMEs plan and re-arrange the layout and organisation of their factory on a digital twin model that helps them better plan for the future.

For one of our customers, the digital factory included everything the real factory did. It was a digital replica of the staff, shifts, process flow and capacity constraints, modelling exactly what happens. Then, with the team, we made changes to create a layout that improved output by around 30% in the same square footage. Using the software, we were able to test all ideas in the digital safe space before actually physically moving any machinery, so planning the change was extremely time and cost effective and resulted in increased productivity as all overheads stayed the same and output increased dramatically.

We have also used digital twinning to look at plants that do not exist yet. We have helped a number of customers with what we call ‘concept plants’. These customers have been either growing rapidly and needed to understand their future space requirements  or looking to potentially secure investment. We have successfully helped customers, who have been able to demonstrate to their own staff, boards and to potential investors, what the factory looks like and how it will work, when the business is still in the early stages of planning, with one of our customers securing around £2m of investment and allowing their growth plans to be fulfilled.

It is often difficult for owners and managers to disseminate ideas and plans which are not yet developed fully and the 3D digital twin software helps by turning such ideas and concepts into a visual representation that allows for shared understanding. For one SAM SME, this meant creating a virtual production so that staff could see in advance the changes that would be made to their current operations when moving from a static build environment to a flow line. It also aided the training of staff in how that change – which was a major cultural shift – would look and work, creating improved communication and smoother transition to new ways for working.

This powerful visualisation also works for the business’ customers too! Our help with a production line installation company to demonstrate their line and products to their customer, as part of a tendering process, won them two £1m contracts from a major customer. For another company, we benchmarked their product against other products on the market, clearly demonstrating the difference in environmental impact and benefits, enabling them to take an accurate digital working model to presentations.

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 our support could benefit your business.

RIchard-Eynon-AMAP

Meet our Electronics and Industry 4.0 Expert

Richard Eynon, Industry4.0 and Electronics specialist at the SAM Project, helps SMEs understand and embrace the latest innovations.

Despite the many technological advances that have transformed the manufacturing industry over recent years, many SMEs are still reluctant to invest in the latest Industry4.0, digital and electronic innovations due to a common misconception that you need the budget of an OEM in order to purchase and run the latest software and machinery.

Having accumulated over 20 years’ experience working with transducers in a variety of industries, I have seen the impact cost effective and retrofittable cyber-physical devices can have on SMEs, especially when it comes to productivity. For example, using Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices such as condition monitoring equipment, which include Vibration, Temperature, Humidity, and Proximity Sensors.  These devices can help SMEs monitor performance of their machines and identify potential breakdowns and failures before they happen, resulting in less machine downtime and increased productivity.

Our Acoustic sensors can also be used to validate (audio) data from the connected devices, with an option of further in depth spectrum analysis and can also be intrinsically safer to locate where physical access may be a problem.

This wide industry experience over many years has essentially made me ask better and more relevant questions to help manage and determine a successful design solution, which generally can exceed internal or external customer (client) expectations.  Many design concepts require multi-skilled individuals or groups to solve them and being within the SAM Project – and having access to our colleagues with their broad industry experience and a wide network of industry contacts – can quickly determine the validity of an idea from proof of concept to manufacturability.

SMEs interested in learning how new technologies such as conditioning monitoring can benefit their business can also trial the technology themselves at our state-of-the-art factory areas at the University of Sunderland. Boasting over £1million worth of market-leading equipment, one of our most popular devices is a Portable Monitoring System.

The equipment is small and cost-effective but is a great introduction for SMEs wishing to learn how to implement digital data gathering into their business without breaking the bank and our test factory provides the perfect opportunity for companies to de-risk any future investments in new technology.

All of this equipment is completely free for manufacturers to try out. So, if you’re thinking of investing in any new machinery or software over the year ahead, why not de-risk your investment by paying us a visit?

Meet our CAD/ CAM specialist

Ian Barrett, CAD and Engineering Specialist, tells us more about his role and how the SAM Project can help SMEs embrace CAD and CAM technologies.

Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) technologies were developed in the ‘80s and are now widespread across the industry, helping improve practicality and productivity for businesses the world-over.

Throughout my career, all of my roles have involved some form of design, especially during the early days of CAD adoption, from developing consumer products to large scale heavy engineering projects. I also have a vast knowledge of prototype manufacture (both rapid prototyping and small batch production) and testing.

This has helped me establish an excellent working relationship with customers and colleagues who – as a result – trust my judgement when it comes to all things CAD and engineering.  A business’ needs must be managed, and I take responsibility to gather the relevant information, design or fit a solution to overcome any issues, put them in place and ensure the manufacturer is satisfied and that – more importantly – the problem has been solved, and not just with a ‘sticking plaster’, so to speak.

Due to my experience, knowledge and role, I am actively involved in a whole host of engineering projects, carrying out design layout, concept and prototype design, design for manufacture studies, drawing creation, FEA studies and providing additional information to customers who may require support that is over and above the usual role of a design engineer.

The SAM Project, our Prototype Factory, at The Industry Centre, and most importantly, our staff, allow the region’s manufacturers to experience and benefit from technology and knowledge that – in usual circumstances – would be difficult to access. Especially for small businesses. It’s also all under one roof and on their doorstep, at absolutely no cost to their business.

Recent success stories include using CAD to help an SME manufacturer develop a transparent, bullet-proof security barrier for the armed forces. Not only did we design the modular framework and supporting accessories, we also provided a scale prototype allowing the customer to have meaningful conversations with not just the MOD but also their finance and funding bodies.

Another saw us work with a family-owned beauty salon which – prior to tapping into our support – had absolutely no manufacturing or design experience. We helped them develop their idea for an easy-to-clean, portable, mobile hygiene screen and brought the idea to life by creating a fully functioning prototype. They are now looking at selling the product across the globe.

So, if you’re an SME manufacturer in the North East wondering how you could benefit from adopting CAD, need to provide CAD data and are not sure the best route to do it, or get the most out of your current CAD installations, why not pay us a visit at the University of Sunderland and see for yourself how our support could benefit your business?

Hundreds of firms have secured grant funding from SAM, could you be next?

Since 2018, the SAM Project has helped over 200 North East businesses become more productive and sustainable by supporting projects that enhance products, processes and technology.

Central to this success has been its incredibly popular Grant Funding scheme, providing matched-funding grants of up to £50,000* for manufacturing projects that support the growth of new products and processes.

This encompasses funding towards new to firm production technology; new product validation (tests/ consultancy); process improvement capital investment; structure to support research and development implementation; external consultancy on a time limited basis linked to a manufacturing/ production project and other product and process development costs.

During the first phase of the SAM Project, spanning 2018 – 2020, this saw the Project distribute over £1million in matched-funding grants, helping add £41.7 million in GVA to the North East businesses that engaged with the programme, creating 290 direct jobs and leading to a 30.1% rise in sales.

And the team at SAM are confident that, following its three year extension to 2023, it will have an even larger impact on the sector going forward, after it saw its grant pot double in size – by a further £1 million – and its technical team at the University of Sunderland continue to grow.

Speaking about the grant funding, Claire Darling-Cooper, compliance officer at the SAM Project, said: “The Grant Funding scheme proved incredibly popular with the region’s SME manufacturing base during phase one of the project, so we were delighted when we received confirmation that it had been extended for a further two years until 2023.

“Not only did it help create jobs, but it also helped safeguard many more and as we look to re-emerge from the pandemic, business support initiatives such as this will be key to ensuring the region’s manufacturers have all the tools they need to compete on the global stage and continue to innovate and grow.

The grants are restricted for small to medium sized (SME) business in the North East Local Enterprise (LEP) area – spanning Northumberland, County Durham and Tyne & Wear – and are also accompanied by 10-15 days’ worth of fully-funded technical support from the SAM Project’s team of eight manufacturing experts, who combined, boast over 250 years’ experience working across the industry in a number of senior roles.

Claire added: “We know how much of a leap of faith it can be when investing in new capital equipment, which is why we provide the technical expertise required to really understand the technology and all of its pros and cons, ensuring we help de-risk each and every investment we underpin.”

One such company to benefit from the SAM Project’s Capital Grant scheme is Vixen Surface Treatments Ltd, a market-leading manufacturer of industrial wet and dry blast cleaning cabinets.

After engaging with the SAM Project, the company was able to receive an in-depth demonstration of how 3D CAD visualisation software could help improve both its design and sales processes, as well as securing the funding required to invest in state-of-the-art software from Solidworks to implement the technology into its business model.

Aidan Mallon, managing director of Vixen Surface Treatments, said: “The first project we completed after the investment saw us test the Solidworks software on a live project that we won. It was a €500,000 export order from a German aerospace company and I genuinely believe we wouldn’t have won that contract without including it in our offer. It really adds credibility and professionalism to our proposals.

“As a manufacturer you must explore every avenue possible to grow your business, be it investing in new equipment or tapping into expertise and funding – and business support from organisations such as SAM is vital to helping SMEs move forward.

“We’d just extended our factory prior to approaching SAM and wanted to move into Solidworks. The grant helped us secure the funding needed to do that and accelerated our growth, helping us gain a competitive advantage by massively increasing the quality of service we’re able to offer clients.”

Another company to benefit from the grant scheme is Chester-le-Street architectural metalwork specialist, Steelcraft Ltd. Since engaging with the SAM Project and securing a five-figure funding grant, the company has expanded its product offering and launched a new brand, Forjj, allowing it to diversify and sell its products directly to consumers across the globe.

“The team at SAM were absolutely amazing,” Liam Armstrong, operations manager at Steelcraft said. “Prior to engaging with them, our factory hadn’t changed in 20 years and we were struggling to see how we could scale up our operations while keeping costs and disruption at an absolute minimum.

“Using simulation software, they were able to create an identical, computerised model of our workshop and, working closely with our production manager, identify which machines and processes could be altered and moved to make space for the new machinery and improved workflow.

“We’d never have even thought about using digital twin software to visualise and improve our shop floor and – as a family-business – we could never have accessed something like this without the support of SAM.”

The grants are accessible by all manufacturing SMEs, who can also still engage separately in a technical project with SAM (this can often support or identify the need for a grant application or helps to specify their precise needs and focus on the benefit and returns). The grant award is 25% matched funding available to those in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland and 35% for those in County Durham. The grants can also be used to support the purchase of second-hand equipment, as well as brand new machinery kit and software, and can even be used for specialist services or testing needs that may be holding a company back.

Claire added: “Vixen and Steelcraft are just two of scores of success stories we’ve recorded through the Project’s journey so far and are evident of the impact this support can have.

“Not only do the grants help break down the barriers to investing in new technology but they also help eliminate other financial inhibitors to driving strategic development of both product and process.

“The only drawback for us is that we only have £1 million to give away. While it may sound like a lot, the first phase of the SAM Project proved so popular that the grant pot was empty well in advance of the project’s end date, therefore we’d recommend any manufacturer reading this who thinks they may be eligible to get in touch with us and find out more.”

Interested in finding out more about the SAM Capital Grant scheme? Visit: https://samprojectuos.co.uk/grant-support-helps-sustain-growth-for-vixen/ or email: sam.project@sunderland.ac.uk

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…