Tag Archives: Northumberland

How tech can help plug the manufacturing skills gap

How tech can plug the manufacturing skills gap

Much has been made of the skills gap in the UK manufacturing industry in recent years and there are a number of factors contributing to this, including a lack of investment in new technology.

The manufacturing industry is heavily influenced by evolving technologies and new techniques are constantly helping to improve processes and the quality of end-products. There’s also no hiding from the increasing amount of computerisation involved in production processes, as well as the need for bespoke software solutions to meet growing demand, utilise different materials and manage workload.

As someone who has spent over 30 years’ in the industry, I’ve witnessed this first-hand. After working at one of the earliest adopters of industrial robots in the UK, Tallent Engineering (now Gestamp), I have seen the first robots they installed in the early 1980s grow to a robot population of over 1,200 at its Aycliffe site, with the pioneering technology helping bring continued success to the company and making it more competitive on the global stage.

Fast-forward 30 years and we have seen many more of the region’s manufacturers invest in emerging and mature technologies, such as AR/VR, which has been embraced by the likes of Caterpillar in Peterlee.  However, technology advancement isn’t unique to large companies, despite the many pre-conceptions of such technologies being too expensive. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Recently, we have worked with scores of North East SMEs to help them embrace new technologies, including companies such as Kail &Co, Heliguy, and AR Controls. Additive manufacturing in particular is increasingly competing with traditional manufacturing techniques even outside of prototyping and is a fundamental part of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

This is why, when reading the latest ‘Addressing skills and labour shortages post-Brexit’ report by the CIPD, I was surprised to see that only 9% of UK businesses plan to invest in technology as a way of addressing skill or labour shortages over the coming years. Technology is such a key driver within industry, which is why it’s now as important as ever to support businesses and employers to increase the adoption of new technology and support the skills development of staff.

Many SME manufactures are facing staff shortages and short-term interventions are needed in the way of quality business support and funding to overcome this crisis, making the investment in skills and technology more manageable and paving the way for long-term success. This support is exactly what the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project is here to provide, by helping SME manufacturers to innovate, grow and diversify.

Backed by ERDF, the Northern Powerhouse Initiative and the University of Sunderland, the SAM Project has a team of dedicated technical experts who work alongside the region’s SME manufacturers to support the implementation of product and process development, as well as the introduction of technology, at absolutely no cost to businesses. We also have matched-funding grants to help make the investment in new technology as affordable as possible.

Over the past few years, I have seen with my own eyes the many benefits that investing in technology can have on SMEs through some of the incredible projects we have been a part of, helping manufacturers embrace new technologies such as robotics, automation, design software, 3D printing and augmented and virtual reality. It’s technologies like these that open new doors for businesses and provide their employees with the capability to build upon their skills and ensure they are employable for years to come.

One such business that we were proud to support is specialist metal fabricators, Almet, who we helped explore the use of robotic welding technology through live demonstrations, showcasing to the team what they could achieve with this type of machinery based upon their specific needs. The Washington-based company has now increased its factory size by 12,000 sq ft and is investing in the technology itself to enhance processes. Not only did this safeguard jobs, but it will also create a number of highly skilled roles.

Another company we supported was precision engineering specialist, Ashgarth Engineering, providing funding to help with the purchase of a 3 axis vertical machining centre with a 4th axis attachment. This allowed the company to branch out into new markets and offer their current clients additional processes, leading to an increase in turnover and the creation of jobs.

However, tackling the skills and labour shortages post-Brexit and post-pandemic will take time and will also need to filter down to education, increasing awareness in schools about careers in manufacturing and increasing the number of manufacturing apprenticeships to help bridge the skills gap.

The manufacturing industry can provide employees with limitless potential to grow and learn as technology continues to advance. After all, just because someone lacks a certain skill, or the knowledge to operate new machinery, doesn’t mean they won’t pick it up quickly. If you have the willingness to learn and explore the opportunities in front of you, the skills shortage can be reduced, and your business can thrive.

For the SAM Project, we will continue to encourage the regions SME manufacturers to explore the support on offer and get in touch to find out how we can help. Our objective has always been the same, to build resilience among the region’s SME manufacturers, increase productivity and help not only safeguard, but also create jobs for the generations to follow.

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…

Shooting Target

Target manufacturer has new markets in its crosshairs

A BRITISH soldier is proving to be a sharpshooter in business as well as the bunker, after taking his battlefield skills into the boardroom.

Northumberland-based Tactical Shooting Solutions was set up by a British soldier with almost two decades’ service, after he identified a gap in the market for UK-manufactured, military-grade shooting targets.

Three years on, the family-run company is now exporting its products to customers across Europe and the USA and has outlined bold ambitions to further expand its global footprint, with the launch of a ‘revolutionary’ new product.

Working alongside the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project at the University of Sunderland, Tactical Shooting Solutions has developed a new range of heat-sensored shooting targets, specifically designed for snipers and marksmen to train at night.

Launching early next year, the company believes the product range will be a ‘first-of-its-kind’ not only for the military, but also consumer markets such as pest control, and will help position it as a ‘leader in the next-generation of target technology’.

The company’s founder said: “Having served in the British military for the best part of two decades, I knew the market well and had often felt that it was one that hadn’t really moved with the times and had failed to innovate, especially in comparison to other industries, so I decided to develop something which I thought was more suited to the needs of military personnel.

“Initially, we started off producing targets, but as soon as we secured orders and customers began to realise the quality of our products, we sharp began to receive enquiries for other shooting solutions and today produce a wide range of items from targets, to gun cases and bags.”

Prior to the launch of Tactical Shooting Solutions, the shooting target market was dominated by manufacturers in the USA and reshoring production to the UK was something he was keen to explore.

“UK manufacturing is esteemed the world-over due to its exceptional standards and its commitment to innovation,” he said. “Not only has this helped us secure contracts, but it has also helped sustain jobs in the supply chain and tap into some of the brightest brains in the industry to take our products to the next level.”

Having already developed a market-leading product with no prior experience of running a business, the company’s founder began thinking of new ways they could increase their market share and devised the idea of producing a target that would allow military personnel – especially snipers and marksman – train at night.

This led to him being introduced to Richard Eynon, the Industry 4.0 and Electronics Specialist at the SAM Project, a £10.9 million business support programme led by the University of Sunderland and backed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) which helps SME manufacturers innovate and grow.

Richard, alongside experts from the University of Sunderland, worked closely with the firm to explore the electrical requirements that would be needed to develop heated targets, as well as identifying UK factories capable of developing the technology at scale.

He said: “Over the years, I’ve witnessed first-hand how difficult it is for military infantry such as marksmen and snipers to practice at night and have been drawing up ideas for some time to develop something that could fill the gap.

“We knew it had to be heat-powered, however we didn’t have any idea how to make it happen. Thankfully, we were introduced to the team at SAM and – with their technical expertise and funding – were able to not only design a product that was viable, but also establish a sustainable UK supply chain to bring the product to market.

“As a small, family business, the ability to tap into such free, specialist support has been amazing. We would never have been able to tap into such technical expertise had it not been for the SAM Project and we can’t thank them enough for their support.”

Richard Eynon of the SAM Project added: “It was great working with the team at Tactical Shooting Solutions and helping them design, source and implement the bespoke heater pads required to bring this game-changing technology to market.

“The SAM Project was set up to help unlock innovation among the North East’s SME manufacturing community and Tactical Shooting Solutions is a perfect example of how such collaborative working can help make the region’s manufacturers more competitive and increase productivity.”