Industrial automation: trends, changes, and investment

11th May 2023
Paige West

Paige West talks industrial automation with Eleanor Young, Director of Industrial Automation & Control, Farnell.

In a world where the digitalisation of the industrial sector continues to grow, how easy is it for companies to integrated automated practices into factories? 

Although we are seeing this space grow rapidly, it is still quite complex and that can be difficult for SME customers to adopt the technology and practices. Even larger customers who are early adopters of industrial automation can encounter challenges when it comes to keeping up to date with the constantly evolving sector. However, education has proven critical, and we are seeing engineers understanding more and more about this space as it becomes increasingly common place. There is, of course, some way still to go for this process to be easier for companies, but the accessibility of the products is a huge factor as well as the upskilling of the engineers who work with these products on a daily basis.

What has changed in the last five years?

There have been several factors that have had a huge impact on the industrial sector. Let’s start with COVID-19, which accelerated the requirement for automation. Due to the lockdowns and restricted personnel within facilities, productivity became limited and in the case of some manufacturers, it grounded to a halt completely. The demand for automated practices increased significantly because of this, which created big changes within the industrial sector, and we are now seeing these as standard practices.    

More recently, rising energy costs and the immediate requirements from businesses to manage these costs and reduce them where possible has led to a greater focus on energy efficiency.

There’s also the increasing pressure from governments and net zero targets driving changes in this space. Industry currently represents roughly a third of carbon emissions and there has been a big focus on this over the last five years, and we expect that focus to intensify over the next five years. There hasn’t been much in terms of legislation to date, but we expect there to be updated legislation within Europe soon which will bring further changes to the sector to drive sustainability efforts.   

What trends do you expect to see from the industrial automation sector in the next few years?

Sustainability is undoubtedly the key trend we’re seeing driving the industry and we expect that to continue. We’re not just talking about carbon emission either, but also about the reduction of waste.

Other trends already emerging which will become more prominent to the industry are digital twins, machine learning (ml) and artificial intelligence (ai). integration of these technologies not only helps to automate complex and repetitive tasks with greater efficiency and precision, but they can also handle dangerous or hazardous tasks that would otherwise require human intervention which improves safety in the workplace.

In addition, 5G and big data are continuing to evolve too, and we expect to see more of their impact in the sector over the next few years.  

Farnell has increased its investment into industrial automation and control through increasing inventory to its product portfolios for this market. What role do you see the distributor playing to support new customers in this sector?

Due to ever evolving nature of the industrial automation and control sector, customers may not be very confident in what they’re buying. They need confidence that the product they are buying has been tried and tested. Distributors can give customers access to the largest names and products in this space. New customers may not want to buy in entire solutions if they don’t understand the technology in detail or don’t have the budget to buy the entire solution. A distributor should be able to offer customers flexibility and options to combat this. For example, Farnell customers are able to buy one product, such as one sensor, try it and potentially return it if it doesn’t do what they need rather than allocating significant budget behind something they can’t try and trust. This is crucial in a market that requires engineers to be constantly learning in order to adopt new technology.

At Farnell, we provide advice and guidance to our customers in a range of formats. For example, in addition to the user manuals, specifications and data sheets available on our website, we have also published articles focused on industrial automation, released podcasts focused on Industry 4.0 and industrial automation practices and created downloadable ebooks highlighting advice from our suppliers within this sector. We will also be conducting a live Q&A panel session for our customers to add further value and have developed the element14 Community to bring people together.

We offer a range of stocked industrial automation and control products, along with access on our website to key data, such as data sheets, delivery information and clear pricing. All of this can be accessed on our website at any time of the day or night, which also supports requirements of those businesses not operating to a traditional 9am-5pm schedule across different time zones.

Is there a vision for the company that you help to direct as Farnell grows its IAC portfolio?

The world around us is rapidly changing and any distributor needs to keep up with the times to stay relevant. We know that there are key trends that we want to support with our Industrial Automation and Control portfolio. Our vision is to be recognised as a modern, progressive business who can provide access to the latest technology based on trends within the marketplace, in one location. We want to add value to our customers within this changing space and access to our online community is just one of the ways we can achieve this.

There will be a journey, because technology is changing all the time and so customer needs are constantly changing too, but we are confident that through our community and the continued research, content development and thought-leadership spaces, we can support customers within this space. We have also invested into our product offering to grow this side of the business and I think it’s really exciting to be part of something that is so future forward.  

Do you have any goals you would like to achieve for the business in your new role as the Industry Category Director at Farnell?

I want Farnell to be recognised as a one-stop shop across the industrial sector. The goal is for Farnell to be thought of as a go-to supplier in this sector and able to provide customers with everything they need from one place. We are doing this by examining our product portfolio and enhancing existing stock, while also filling the gaps. For example, we have recently introduced a pneumatics supplier to our portfolio to expand our range available for the industrial sector and the growth we have seen from our customer base is amazing.

We want to provide customers with options to support their requirements, from budgetary restrictions to time to market pressures. The more investment we make into this space, the more we can support our customers to take advantage of the growing technology out there.  

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