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Whatever industry you work in, there is no standing in the way of progress. It wasn’t that long ago when we were operating in a world without mobile phones, email or the internet; how on earth did we cope? We did, of course, but at a slower, more manually driven pace.
Automation is what many engineers see as core to advancing proven manufacturing processes, driven largely by factors such as cost, acceptance and availability. For instance, at Webtec we have invested in machine tool automation and robotic pallet loading four times over the past 20 years; each occasion the technology has got better, quicker and more flexible. Looking ahead, we have plans to introduce more automation in areas such as assembly, machining and administration. Everyone thinks of automation as robots, but smart software can massively improve the productivity of administration in manufacturing processes. Industry is likely to become increasingly reliant on software that can help spot patterns in large data sets and prompt users to act.
From a customer viewpoint, automation has a key part to play in bridging the skills gap. For example, hydraulic products could start to provide users with recommendations about the optimum system configuration, rather than relying on a hydraulics engineer with 30 years’ experience. We already see this kind of behaviour on satnavs and online shopping portals, for example, and it will only be a matter of time before it becomes widespread in industry too.
Another hot topic in automation right now is artificial intelligence (AI), or machine learning (ML). Driven by the momentum of an Industry of Things (IoT) connected world, it’s getting easier and cheaper to record more data. Machines are increasingly capable of analysing this data, looking for patterns and recommending or taking actions based upon it. Capability of this ilk can bring enormous opportunities to improve customer service, quality, delivery and customisation.
Of course, all of this is a far cry from the state of play 20 years ago. At Webtec we had just introduced the first micro-processors to our flow meters in a way that worked in arduous environments. That was the beginnings of a massive shift in miniaturisation, simplification and innovative electronics. More recently, we have linked our portable hydraulic testers up to a smartphone via Bluetooth™ to allow wireless data logging and paperless reporting, which is an exciting move towards full IoT.
This brings us nicely to the final point: communication technology has changed so much with mobile phones, built-in video cameras, increased bandwidth and video conferencing, all of which have enabled more collaborative innovation. For Webtec, this has meant slicker custom product design, which is today a much faster, simpler, everyday occurrence…to the benefit of our customers.