By the start of 2020 new technology was gaining ground in UK manufacturing – robots were on the rise, automation was being embraced by more and more businesses, and smart vision systems were getting an ever deeper hold on inspection and quality assurance. Then came COVID-19.

The pandemic pushed three things onto centre stage for manufacturers in the UK and throughout the world.

Firstly, uncertainty surrounded the immediate future. How could any business make plans, let alone invest in new machinery, when we could be heading for an economic meltdown?

Secondly, staff from the boiler room to the boardroom were at risk of fatal infection. So how could we expect employees to work side by side, breathing the same air?

Thirdly, technology emerged, almost from the very start of the pandemic, as the way forward. From Zoom meetings to a growing reliance on robots, cobots and automation, it became clear that cutting edge technology would be critical in solving many of the problems which COVID-19 created. (See how PPMA Members innovated and offered support at the height of the crisis).

Manufacturing technology in the UK today

So where are we now? The good news is that the economy has not tanked and there are realistic prospects of businesses flourishing. While infections have not stopped being a worry, vaccinations have been taken up in large numbers throughout the UK. Still, with plenty of caveats, the world of work is adapting to the new normal. It is time to start feeling rather more optimistic.

And technology? There is no doubt that new technology is at the heart of the new post-pandemic ways of working. Advanced machinery and equipment are behind a multitude of new approaches including AMRs (Automated Mobile Robots), 3D printers, AR (Augmented Reality), smart glasses and ever more accurate vision systems including 3D vision for volumetric measurement. Add in ever growing volumes of real time data, and the new manufacturing landscape offers greater speed, agility and accuracy, precision and few unscheduled stoppages.

So, it is no surprise that there is a measurable change in attitudes among business decision-makers. According to a survey by ABB Robotics, 90.8% of businesses see COVID-19 as a game-changer in the way we work, and 81% are now looking at investment in robotics and automation. The trend was under way before CoVID-19 impacted all of our lives, but now it has accelerated in a way few could have imagined.  

What are the advantages of robots and automation?

From so many points of view, advanced machinery and systems make businesses perform better. The list of benefits cannot be ignored:

  • reduced operating costs
  • improved product quality
  • improved consistency
  • increased production
  • better use of space
  • more flexibility
  • a solution to social distancing

What’s more, an investment in robotics and automation drives new business models which can create a lasting competitive advantage. ABB’s research found that many businesses experience less staff turnover once they have installed robots and cobots which make manufacturing safer, more productive and with fewer repetitive manual tasks. For business owners, new equipment overrides many of the challenges of post-Brexit labour shortages and rises in the minimum wage. Technology is indeed making major strides in improving the world of manufacturing, processing and packaging.

How are PPMA exhibitors using robots, automation and vision systems?

Let’s look at some examples of the tangible ways that exhibitors at PPMA Show 2021 are improving manufacturing with new technology.

Engelmann and Buckham are a team of machinery consultants whose expertise includes robotics and vision systems. Their work covers filling and capping systems using AiCROV robotic fillers and 3D artificial vision technology. Their fully automated solution is hugely flexible enough to handle fluids and viscous liquids and works with containers ranging from 25 to 1,500 litres. Robotics provide flexibility and the vision systems ensure accuracy. 

Two robots from ABB are at the heart of an automated tray handling system for confectionery designed by CKF. The robots handle tray stacking, destacking, picking and filling with the ability to handle delicate confectionery products.

Visual Components provide manufacturing simulation technology for logistics giant DHL’s technology and innovation hub. As an example of the benefits delivered by the Visual Components technology, a 35% increase has been achieved in processing efficiency and productivity for a health industry packaging system.

Jenton Dimaco, part of the Jenton Group, use advanced vision systems for food labelling. The high-spec cameras are coupled with Jenton’s optical character recognition algorithms to provide exceptionally accurate control of labels. As a result, waste is kept to a minimum and data from labels is collected and used as key management information.  

have recently installed vision systems and checkweighers for a European pizza company. A set of five digital cameras inspects the products for shape, unburnt edges and evenly spread toppings before being checked by a metal detector and weighed in batches of up to 210 pizzas at one time.

Cama Group on having advanced its packaging automation with robotic pick and place technology and advanced vision systems. The result is a significant increase in flexibility and agility based around a fully interconnected and programmable automation infrastructure. With better pick speeds, accuracy, quality control and traceability, Cama is seeing the benefits of becoming, in their own words, ‘as automated as possible’.

IFM Electronic has developed a product that is a starting point for exploring the IIOT (Industrial Internet of Things). The moneo starter kit monitors the condition machines such as motors, fans and pumps. Data can be viewed on a customisable display and logged for future analysis and learning,

Sealed Air are expert on packing automation, and on addressing the limiting factors in existing fulfilment set-ups. Their automated packaging systems are used throughout the food industry.

Is there any financial support for investment in future technology?

There are plenty of positive reasons for investing in new technology, and you can benefit from different ways of financing development projects.

Remember, the government’s Annual Investment Allowance removes the cost of investment in new machinery from your taxable profits. There is further support through the Super-deduction Allowance for new plant and machinery. Introduced in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the allowance period finishes on March 31, 2023.

The other option to consider is leasing. Suppliers frequently offer lease deals to ease the cost of taking on new machinery and technology.