Alan Norbury, Industrial Central Technology Officer at Siemens UK

‘Robotics and automation will play a key role for UK manufacturers,’ says Siemens

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Exclusive interview with Alan Norbury, industrial central technology officer at Siemens UK

German industrial giant Siemens employs approximately 15,000 people at some 30 locations across the UK. Globally, it employs around 350,000 and has annual revenues of more than €75 billion. It is said to be the largest engineering company in Europe. It’s also claimed to employ more computer programmers than does Microsoft. 

With the European Union referendum looming over the UK, the company’s senior executives have made their views clear, with the UK chief executive of the 165-year-old Siemens, Jurgen Maier, saying manufacturing jobs would be at risk if Britain left the EU.

The UK exports almost €150 billion of physical goods to the EU, and it is estimated that around 1 million jobs in the UK are linked to EU trade.

Moreover, some analysts say that for every one job created in manufacturing, several more jobs are created in other sectors, such as information technology, for example, especially now when the internet of things is spreading rapidly across all sectors of industry. 

More and more factories and warehouses – the buildings themselves as well as the machinery inside them – are getting hooked up to the IoT and the sector is going through a growth phase. Management consultancy PwC estimates the IoT will lift UK GDP by $300 billion by 2030 at today’s levels of investment.

Whether any of this economic activity will be jeopardised if the UK exits the EU is open to speculation for now, but even without the uncertainty the EU referendum brings, the economic environment hasn’t exactly been rosy in recent years.

Greater levels of internet connectivity 

Alan Norbury, Industrial Central Technology Officer at Siemens UK
Alan Norbury, industrial central technology officer at Siemens UK

In an exclusive and extended interview with Robotics and Automation NewsAlan Norbury, industrial central technology officer at Siemens, explains how C-level executives in the manufacturing sector are dealing with the current economic climate and the trend towards greater levels of internet connectivity in industry, a trend sometimes referred to as Industry 4.0. 

Norbury has seen a lot of changes in the global industrial landscape. He started his career as an apprentice in Siemens Congleton, in north-west England, in 1978, moving into the role of technical specialist where he specialised in automation and low voltage products. In 1998 Alan spent time in Germany acting as global account manager for key accounts such as Philip Morris, the famous owner of the Marlboro brand of cigarettes, and ICI, the old archetypal British industrial company whose products included paints and chemicals until it closed down in 2008. 

Norbury says: “C-level executives must focus on shifting manufacturing from an art to a science in order to alleviate the strain on manufacturing brought on by the economic climate and current skills shortage.In an interview with EM360, Alan Norbury, industrial central technology officer at Siemens, explains how C-level executives in the manufacturing sector are dealing with the current economic climate and the trend towards greater levels of internet connectivity in industry, a trend sometimes referred to as Industry 4.0. 

“The most experienced workers in any industry will have decades of experience in understanding the machinery they work with. However, many of those experienced workers will be retiring in the near future.

“Executives in manufacturing must look to the future, focussing on how we can utilise technology to solve the skills shortage by providing automation or robotics solutions to help ease the transition as experts leave the industry.” 

Government has the answers 

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Norbury encourages more consultation with government bodies. He has spent the past two years working closely with the government-funded High Value Catapult Centres, particularly the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry and more recently the AMRC Sheffield.

Executives in the UK and Ireland need to start better engaging with the likes of government-backed Catapult centres, which focus on business-led collaboration in sectors such as food and beverage, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and oil and gas.

“One of the centres we’ve worked with is the Manufacturing Technology Centre – the High Value Manufacturing Catapult in Coventry, which helps to bring new concepts into reality, increase focus on innovative products for reconfigurable manufacturing and helps to provide the next generation of skilled workers.

“One of the most important areas executives must consider is hiring the right workers with a grounding in traditional manufacturing processes, with a specific focus on automation technologies and their uses. After all, investment in new technology provides no business benefit if staff are unable to extract maximum value from it.” 

At the moment, opinion seems divided on whether to or not leaving the EU would be good for the manufacturing sector. Complex regulations may return if Britain were to leave the EU, making it more difficult to do business with many countries in mainland Europe. However, given that so much of the future growth of the global economy apparently depends on China and other emerging economies, some people argue that a so-called “Brexit” would lead to a weaker Sterling and, as a result, make UK exports more affordable to the rest of the world.

2020 vision 

Siemens has initiated something it calls the Partner 2020 programme, to encourage investment in technology, especially robotics and automation technology. It’s part of Norbury’s brief to develop the latest technology innovations which, while seeking to benefit Siemens UK manufacturing facilities and Siemens industrial customers, could also have a beneficial effect on the UK manufacturing sector as a whole.

siemens robotic electronics factory
Employees at Siemens’ Electronics Manufacturing Plant in Erlangen have the freedom to try out innovative ideas and turn them into successful projects.

Norbury says: “Robotics and automation will play a key role for UK manufacturers looking to increase productivity, however, for those intent on investing, knowing where to turn in the first instance is a key stumbling block. If a company hasn’t used automation technology before, the first leap, while often the most important, is also the most daunting.

“Many business owners do not know either who develops the architecture, or where best to procure this technology. Automation within industry isn’t only a matter of implementing the technology – the education of manufacturers on the benefits and processes behind automation must become a main focus.

“In order to bridge this information gap, Siemens has recently launched the ‘Partner 2020’ programme. By utilising expert partner knowledge, manufacturers can break down the initial barrier to automation technology through the deployment of specialist knowledge, insight and guidance, while also allowing access to technologies that can improve growth for manufacturers.

“When developing a brand new factory, manufacturers naturally adopt the most cutting edge technologies, such as robotics and automation. In the UK and Ireland, however, the majority of industries are looking to update existing factories which are in need of modernisation. The UK and Ireland prides itself on running systems on a tight budget, yet the downside is that in the long term we become less productive.

“Copenhagen Business School recently found that if the UK and Ireland were to adopt automation and robotic systems to the same level as certain other countries, for example Germany and Japan, we could increase productivity by up to 22 per cent, and long-term employment by 7 per cent.” 

Virtual 3D factories 

virtual 3d factory siemens

Siemens is such a large company that it could probably dictate the direction in which large parts of the manufacturing industry goes. If, for example, Siemens decided that the way forward for engineering was through the use of virtual reality, it’s likely that the largest number of users of VR will be found in the manufacturing sector, and not in computer gaming, as one might expect. 

Having said that, Siemens isn’t actually the first or only proponent of VR in industry, the technology seems to have found a natural home there anyway. Nonetheless, given its size and influence, what Siemens senior executives like Norbury think of VR and other new technologies is an important indicator of what the future holds for the sector. 

Norbury says: “Innovative technologies such as virtual reality, the ability to create fully virtual 3D factory environments to gauge the potential effect of factory changes, will fast become essential to UK manufacturing. A key factor for many organisations looking to upgrade is the perceived risk of operational downtime and unexpected cost; these technologies help to overcome those concerns through parallel innovation.

“Siemens originally utilised this technology to alter factory layouts in order to gain maximum productivity efficiencies, as repositioning physical machines often led to a halt in production, causing a halt in productivity. More recently, we have found undertaking research and development in the virtual world reduces the number of physical prototypes created, with an average of nine prototypes per product reduced to only three. Our long-term goal is to remove the need for physical prototypes, with the entire process run through virtual reality.

“We also expect automation uptake to increase in the consumer market, resulting in faster design of new products and new systems being brought to the market at greater speed. We are already seeing this with food and beverage companies which are allowing customers to specify and adapt ingredients in their food to their specific tastes. Another example is in the customisation and design of bespoke garments, whereby customers are now able to select the design they want and overlay it onto items of clothing.

“Without automation, the scale and speed required with this type of project would be impossible – and cost prohibitive. Automation is shaping manufacturing’s future, whether that’s unlocking the UK’s productivity puzzle or helping to rapidly bring new systems, technology, and products to the market. Used correctly, these technologies have the potential to boost ROI [return on investment] for individual manufacturers across all industries, while also contributing to the country’s broader economic output and success.” 

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