Movers & Shakers Interview with Mike Wilson, CEO, British Automation and Robotics Association

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Movers & Shakers Interview with Mike Wilson, CEO, British Automation and Robotics Association
Mike Wilson has 30 years of experience in the application of automation to manufacturing. He is the Owner and Managing Director of Creative Automation Solutions Ltd providing consultancy and training to the automation and manufacturing industries.
He is the Director of the Automation Advisory Service which has been created to help increase the competitiveness of UK manufacturers by providing the knowledge and expertise needed to identify and implement cost effective and efficient automation solutions. He has previously served as Managing Director of HY Robotics Ltd, Meta Vision Systems Ltd and FANUC Robotics UK Ltd.

In addition he is the Director of the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association and also Vice Chairman of the Engineering and Machinery Alliance. He has been Chairman of the International Federation of Robotics from 2000 to 2003 and also a Director of the Centre for Food Robotics and Automation.

Archana Chauhan (AC): Can you comment specifically about your role in the association and the role of the association itself?

Mike Wilson (MW): BARA was originally set up as the British Robot Association (BRA) over 30 years ago to promote the use of robots and the development of robot technologies in the United Kingdom and to act as a focal point and networking vehicle for all parties interested in robots. This was at the very early stages of the applications of robots in car manufacturing plants which involved 20 or 30 robots. However, these same facilities nowemploy up to 500 robots. Currently, BARA functions in other sectors as well, which include food and aerospace and other non-manufacturing units. BARA has evolved tremendously since its inception.

I have been in the BARA Council for 20 years and have been the President for the last 17 years. As I became the President, I strived to increase the membership of BARA to include all companies operating in the automation sector to help them grow their businesses by precompetitive cooperation. Furthermore, promoting the benefits of robots and automation across industries and the government can be instrumental in gaining support for our activities.

AC: Is this a good time to make investments in automation? Are the end users in Britain being more conservative at the moment?

MW: This is a good time to invest in appropriate automation. There are mainly solutions and technologies, which have been proven and are industry ready. The cost of the equipment has halved over the last 10 years and the performance has improved significantly. However, manufacturing in the United Kingdom is conservative and employs less automation technology than our main competitors. This is due to lack of awareness of the benefits and costs, concerns regarding the perceived risk and short-term approach to investment.

AC: What do you think are the fundamental reasons behind the slow adoption of automation in developing economies like India, apart from cost factor?

MW: In developing countries such as India and China, initial adoption of automation was slow, partly due to low wages, and also due to lack of engineering skills and unavailability of equipment. However, currently many highly skilled and well-motivated engineers are being produced from educational institutions. Furthermore, suppliers have local operations and the up take is increasing significantly. China is the fastest growing user of robots despite their low wage rates.

AC: You are making good progress in encouraging automation in several industries, including the food processing and other process industries. What could be some of the elements of disruption?

MW: The main challenges are often seen by the managers and engineers. They are used to managing people and operating their existing systems. Automation means new technologies. It also introduces constraints which, if you get things wrong, can cause many problems. Many managers may avoid change due to the risk of getting things wrong.

I believe the workforce, if they are involved at an early stage, will support the use of automation (they recognise that investment means their jobs are more secure) and also help in designing the system correctly. They will also make an effort in understanding and accommodating all the constraints correctly. Additionally, companies which do automate become more competitive, gain business, and employ more people.

AC: Has the economic depression affected the future of automation in Britain? Also, can you share if BARA identified any new opportunities in the field of automation during the recession?

MW: The recession caused a decline in automation purchases. However, robot sales in 2010 were up by 65 percent in 2009 and by halfway in 2011, we had almost achieved the same level as acquired in the whole of 2010. I would not say we have identified new opportunities. There are many proven applications which are being implemented. However, we are a long way behind other countries. For example, robot density (number of robots per 10,000 employees) in manufacturing outside automotive in the UK is only 25 whereas Germany has 127, Italy 97, Spain 45 and France 38 (World Robotics 2010).

AC: What new opportunities (region-wise or vertical-wise) do you foresee that are likely to offer growth in automation market in the long and short terms?

MW: All sectors of manufacturing are a long way behind the automotive industry in terms of automation usage. Robot density (number of robots per 10,000 employees) in the automotive sector in the United Kingdom is 613 (World Robotics 2010), whereas it is only 25 in other manufacturing sectors, which demonstrates the significant potential across manufacturing.

AC: How do you educate endusers on automation products?

MW: We try to increase the awareness of the benefits by articles in the media, regular presentations and seminars. We will shortly be starting an Automating Manufacturing campaign with government support, which along with increasing awareness will provide independent, expert support to the SMEs in the United Kingdom who are interested in applying automation, but do not have the in-house skills and resources to develop projects.

AC: What do you see as the major challenges in automation in the coming years and how should companies plan to address these challenges?

MW: The main challenge will come from overseas competition as well as rising resource (labour, materials and utilities) costs. Automation is one part of the answer. The United Kingdom is good at product innovation and efficiency (lean engineering), but is poor at investing in advanced manufacturing equipment. Without all three, it is becoming increasingly difficult to compete. We need flexibility in our manufacturing and therefore, robots are a key tool to achieve competitiveness.

AC: What do you want to accomplish as CEO of BARA in the next five years?

MW: The first step is the successful implementation of the Automating Manufacturing campaign, which is due to run till April 2013. We hope this will provide considerable stimulus to the use of robots in the manufacturing units of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, this will generate interest and awareness, driving the use of automation after the campaign is finished.

We are also working on strengthening UK's activities in advanced/service robots. Innovative ideas are being developed, but will need adequate coordination to maximising results. We hope to bring these people and organisations together to ensure that the United Kingdom can make use of most of these activities and an active and profitable UK service robot sector can be developed for the benefit of the UK PLC.

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