Tag Archives: Manufacturing growth

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.”

Steelcraft and SAM

Steelcraft shows true mettle to diversify and grow

AN ARCHITECTURAL metalwork specialist is forging ahead into new markets, after receiving investment and technical expertise from a team of manufacturing experts.

Steelcraft Ltd, based in Chester-le-Street, is expanding its product offering and launching a new brand, after securing a five-figure funding grant and support from the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project.

The company, which up until last year specialised solely in the production of metalwork for housing developers such as Bellway and Miller saw its business almost grind to a halt after the closing of construction sites due to social distancing restrictions.

However, having launched its first ecommerce platform, Forjj, just prior to the pandemic, the company was not only able to diversify and sell its products directly to consumers, but also capitalise on the rise in housing restorations during the pandemic, leading to a 900% uplift in online sales during the crisis.

Liam Armstrong, operations manager at Steelcraft Ltd, said: “Forjj had been a work in progress for some time, but it never really received the attention it deserved until the pandemic hit.

“Once we saw our order books dry up during the Covid crisis, we dedicated most of our resources to pushing that side of the business and we couldn’t be happier with how it has improved our business.’’

While the launch of Forjj allowed Steelcraft to pivot during the crisis and carve out new business opportunities, it’s success also resulted in the company running at full capacity, once lockdown measures were eased and the UK embarked upon ‘project build’.

This led to Liam and the team tapping into further support from the SAM Project for grant funding – having already worked in partnership helping the team improve the management of its factory – and exploring how its different avenues of support could help sustainably increase output, while keeping costs at a minimum.

“The team at SAM were absolutely amazing,” he added. “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 tube bending machine allowed Steelcraft to not only create jobs and increase output, but also bring the production of its bent metal components in-house, which the company previously had to outsource, leading to increased costs and lead times.

Liam added: “Like many manufacturers, we were hit hard during the pandemic and would never have been able to purchase the new tube bending machine were it not for the 40% funding grant that we received from SAM.

“Not only has it allowed us to create new jobs, it also allowed us to be more competitive. Prior to this, we had to buy in many of our metal components however now that we’ve brought production in-house, we are more cost competitive, and we’ve never been busier.”

Looking to the future, Steelcraft is now on the verge of launching a third brand, the Newcastle Locker Company, which will see the firm produce military-grade lockers for the armed forces and other specialist users.

“If you’d have asked us a year ago where we’d be today, there’s no way we could have envisaged this,” Liam added. “We couldn’t be happier with the direction we’re going in and we can’t thank the team at SAM enough for their support over the past 18 months or so. I couldn’t recommend the project enough.”

Michelle Hambleton, business development manager at the SAM Project, said: “It was a pleasure working with Liam and the team at Steelcraft and we’re delighted to have been able to help them not only explore how new technology such as simulation software could help improve processes, but also access the funding required to take their business to the next level.

“The SAM Project was set up to help the region’s SME manufacturers innovate and grow by exploring the benefits of – and implementing – new technology, and we’d encourage any business interested in scaling up to get in touch and find out how they could benefit.”

Ashgarth Engineering

Investment gives engineering firm the tools to grow

A COUNTY DURHAM precision engineering specialist is proving it has the talent to turn tools into takings, and grow the business.

Ashgarth Engineering, a subcontract precision engineering specialist based in Consett, has reported a 40% increase in turnover over the past year after seeing demand for its services skyrocket.

Ashgarth Engineering has continued to grow, invest in new capital equipment and created skilled jobs despite the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

The company, which supplies high volume precision machined components to customers across the UK, has benefited from a surge in orders from the automotive and medical industries following fresh investment into the business over the past 12 months.

The investment, which included funding from the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project at University of Sunderland, saw the company relocate to a new, larger workshop in February and invest in the machinery required to ramp up output and cater for the increase in demand for its services.

Co-founder and director, Niall Ash, said: “We’ve grown year-on-year since our launch in 2017 and we’re delighted that – despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic – we’ve been able to continue on this upwards trajectory over the past 12 months.

“Central to this has been the move to our new premises in February, which gave us the capacity required to really ramp up production supported by the investment we secured from the SAM Project.

“After engaging with the programme, we were able to secure a five-figure matched funding grant towards a 3 axis vertical machining centre with a 4th Axis attachment. This allowed us to offer an additional process to our current clients and also branch out into new markets, which previously we’d never have been able to cater for.”

Over the past year, this continued investment has directly led to the creation of three jobs – taking the company’s headcount to nine – and will see the company continue to invest in its team over the coming months.

“We’ve taken on two new skilled machinists on the shop floor as well as a sales specialist to help with business development and if all goes well, we’ll be recruiting for another two roles over the coming months,” Niall added.

“While the past 12 months has undoubtedly thrown up challenges, we’re delighted to be re-emerging from the crisis on such a strong footing and we can’t thank the team at SAM – as well as Business Durham which introduced us to the initiative – enough for their support.

“Although our business growth has been organic over the past four years, we would never have been able to scale at this rate of pace had it not been for funding schemes such as this and I’d urge any business going for growth to see how they could benefit.”

The Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project is a £10.9 million business support programme led by the University of Sunderland and backed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) 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.

Ken Teears, project manager at the SAM Project, said: “It’s fantastic to see innovative, forward-thinking businesses such as Ashgarth Engineering continuing to invest in new technologies and creating highly skilled jobs in the region.

“SAM Project’s objective is to support  the region’s SME manufacturers to increase productivity, automation, diversification and resilience through our fully funded technical support and large grant fund. Ashgarth Engineering are a great example of a ‘SAM SME’ that is  scaling up their operations following our support. We urge other manufacturers to do the same. We’re delighted to have supported Ashgarth on its journey and would like to wish them the best of luck for the future.”