The fast pace of global innovation means it is sometimes hard to know the current state of the art in manufacturing – let alone where it will be in five or 10 years.
Thankfully, our Engineering Futures series of events kicked off last week with five days of bite-size briefings dedicated to Advanced Manufacturing. 950 people signed up to hear the latest on topics such as 3D printing, the future workforce, and simulation.
All the expert-led sessions are now available on demand, for a limited time only – just register for free here to view them at your leisure and share with colleagues. Here is a round-up of some of the most important takeaway messages of the week.
‘Short termism’ is holding back UK automation
The UK is getting “thrashed” when it comes to robot deployment in non-automotive sectors, said BARA council member Bob Hinchcliffe in his webinar on robotic systems integration. The country’s robotic density is just a quarter of Germany’s and lags behind many other countries, including Italy, Spain and Sweden.
This has serious implications for productivity, where the UK fails to compete with other developed nations – but if the manufacturing sector adopted the same level of automation as the most productive, the country could see a 22% increase in productivity, Hinchcliffe said. This would bring a short-term decrease in employment, but a 7.5% gain in the long-term.
Ultimately, UK manufacturers need to look at the bigger picture to understand the benefits of automation, Hinchcliffe said. Other than the automotive sector, “the rest of UK manufacturing just has not adopted at the same level.”
This is largely due to “short termism”, he said, with many companies targeting a 12-month payback for projects. “That compares very unfavourably with many European companies,” he said. “To take an approach of 12 months is just crazy really. There are so many opportunities which are just discarded.”
Sustainability can fix engineering’s ‘image problem’
Engineering has an image problem, agreed the speakers during the Focus on our Future Workforce session – preconceptions of dusty overalls and hard hats are pervasive and hard to shake off, discouraging young people from considering it as a career, and perhaps playing a part in the continuing low levels of women in the industry.
“This is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time. Since I got into the industry 15-20 years ago, it’s been a problem,” said Andy Graham from SolutionsPT.
Thankfully, he said, engineering has all it needs to overcome its image problem. “There’s only really one realistic way that will happen, and that’s by combining all the required forces of renewable energy, conversion of energy… all of those things that we need to get university students to understand that it’s an exciting thing to be part of.” Thanks to its central role in tackling the climate crisis, he said, engineering “literally can save the world.”
With earlier engagement of school pupils and more joined-up thinking between industry and education, engineering’s image problem could become a thing of the past.
Flexibility is key to engineering success
“The changing world needs new skills,” said IMechE president Peter Flinn at his opening address. He highlighted a new IMechE and IET survey of 350 engineers, which identified five areas of interest – technical skills (automation, robotics), digital skills, lean principles (sustainability and the circular economy), soft skills, and openness to change. A shift towards more analytical engineering will require different skills, and create new challenges for students.
Flexibility will be key in the coming years, he said: “That breadth of understanding, and that bringing together of the technical on one hand, and the commercial on the other… I think also that engineers will need to face up to the fact that we are facing major change, and we must have an appetite for that. It’s not going to be easy, but it might be exciting.”
Don’t underestimate data
Scott Sevcik, vice-president of aerospace at Stratasys, joined Flinn and Professional Engineering editor Amit Katwala at the closing address to discuss lessons from Advanced Manufacturing 2021.
“The biggest challenge the manufacturing industry is facing is the lack of data available and the toolsets to store the data,” he said. Thorough, objective data can provide trust in manufacturing processes and materials, and enable standardisation.
Looking ahead at the future of additive manufacturing in the next 10 years, he said further use of composites, new cost-effective solutions and a focus on reusable materials will become more prevalent.
Simulated factories can reveal savings
It is the perennial problem in design and manufacturing – innovating without compromising on cost. Dave McDermaid, director of business consulting at manufacturing simulation company aPriori, and senior expert and applied services consultant Lily Thomas, outlined some ways to approach the challenge at a webinar on the topic.
The ability to influence the cost and manufacturability of a product can only happen in a narrow window of opportunity, before commitment to a particular manufacturing method or location. The urgency to launch new products is greater than ever as companies react to global trends, Thomas said, but the cost of changing design is significantly higher after a product has been launched.
Myriad factors can influence the final cost of a product – so many, in fact, that there simply is not time to go through them all. Thankfully, said McDermaid, simulation can help. aPriori’s programs can simulate manufacturing from start to finish, taking a virtual material, running it through set-up, then simulating manufacturing in different virtual factories – either in particular regions, or actual digital twins of real-life factories.
Such techniques can identify savings and give engineers and designers more time for innovation, McDermaid said. “The opportunity is clear to see… we can get ahead of our competition.”
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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.