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Charlotte Stonestreet

Got a labour crisis? Look at automation 02/10/2021

THE UK has a labour shortage – and OK, for those of you currently going “but the whole world has a labour shortage”, I grant you, there are issues beyond the UK – but there is no doubt in my mind that the UK’s problems are being exacerbated, if not caused, by Brexit.

While the supermarket shelves are certainly not empty, they are not as well stocked as they could be and the shelf life of many fresh products seems to have taken a nose dive. And no one could have missed the miles (sometimes literally) of queues forming at fuel stations as rumours of no deliveries due to a lack of tanker delivery drivers spurred people to make sure that they, at least, didn’t run out of fuel.

Behind the scenes, industry, and again the logistics sector in particular, is also being hit by a lack of forklift operators. In fact, according to Toyota Material Handling UK, an ‘exceptional’ shortage of forklift drivers is prompting more UK companies to adopt automated materials handling equipment (MHE) to optimise the efficiency of their warehouse intralogistics processes.

As Paul Freeman from Toyota observes: “We hear a lot about the problems caused by the present lack of HGV drivers but the scarcity of qualified MHE operators is just as much of an issue for many UK supply chains.”

A recent study by Logistics UK showed that in 2019, 79,000 EU nationals left the UK logistics industry – around 7000 of whom were lift truck drivers.

Furthermore, with close to a third of Britain’s remaining forklift drivers said to be EU nationals, the decision to limit overseas workers’ access to the UK jobs market means that, in the longer term, the situation is only likely to become worse  – which, Toyota forecasts, will further hasten the take-up of automated technology.

Another company looking at the role automation can play in alleviating labour shortages, this time in the food and drink sector, is Omron. Stuart Coulton, the company’s UK market development manager, highlights that as the economy reopens following the pandemic, there are warnings from the sector that it is nearing a tipping point in terms of its ability to keep supermarket shelves stocked due to a worsening labour crisis. From harvesting and processing, to packaging and logistics, the entire food supply chain is being stretched to its limits by staff shortages, he says.

According to a recent report from the Association of Labour Providers (ALP), 78% of food and drink firms said they do not expect to have enough workers in 2021, with more than a third reporting chronic shortages and a quarter reporting that they are already in crisis and will have to rationalise/reduce output.

As I write, the furlough scheme is about to draw to a close, but whether this will help alleviate the current labour crisis remains to be seen. The Government is trying to tempt EU lorry drivers back to the UK to provide some temporary relief, but there is little appetite amongst the politicians in power to go back on the removal of freedom of movement, even in a limited way.

So maybe this is where those in crisis should be looking at automation to relieve the pressure. Although it's probably not going to prove a panacea to UK industry's post-Brexit challenges, it can at least be a positive step forward.

Charlotte Stoenstreet

Managing editor

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The push-pull of recovery 04/08/2021

THE LATEST UK Manufacturing PMI shows that, while rates of expansion in output and new orders have slowed from June, July has seen the upturn continue with robust sales to both domestic and export clients.

The seasonally adjusted IHS Markit/CIPS Purchasing Managers’ Index posted 60.4 in July, down from 63.9 in June and even further from May's record high of 65.6. However, the PMI has signalled expansion for 14 months, and manufacturing production rose for the fourteenth consecutive month in July, as companies benefited from increased new order intakes, rising client confidence and the re-opening of the economy. New business inflows reflected stronger demand from domestic and overseas markets.

That said, rates of growth in both output and new work both eased to four-month lows, with growth slowing across the consumer, intermediate and investment goods industries. So why such mixed reports?

Well, you only have to glance at the news to realise that the UK is experiencing supply chain issues - and it’s not just the supermarkets that are feeling the pinch. The figures show that logistic delays caused by stretched international supply chains led to a further marked lengthening of supplier lead times during July. Raw material shortages, disruption caused by COVID-19 and Brexit and capacity issues across the distribution network (including delays at ports, freight and shipping services) have all contributed to delivery delays.

With demand outstripping supply, price pressures continued to grow during July. Average input costs rose at a near survey-record pace, with over 72% of manufacturers seeing an increase. A vast array of items increased in cost, including chemicals, commodities, cardboard, electronics, foodstuffs, metals, packaging and timber products. The pass-through of higher input costs led to a further substantial rise in output charges, which rose at a near-identical pace to June's record figures.

Increased demand for labour as the economy opens up, Brexit, pandemic-related uncertainty and the furlough scheme have all impacted the number of jobseekers available

And then there is the matter of skills/labour shortages. Increased demand for labour as the economy opens up, Brexit, pandemic-related uncertainty and the furlough scheme (at the end of June around 1.5 million workers were still furloughed) have all impacted the number of jobseekers available. This has been compounded by the so-called ‘pingdemic’ which has seen swaths of workers self-isolating.

Addressing the issue, Make UK is urging the government to bring forward the 16 August date that will see an end to self-isolation for those fully vaccinated. The call was made on the back of a survey, which shows two-thirds of companies back the call in response to the widespread impact of an increasing number of staff who are having to isolate. This is having a knock-on impact with 13% of companies saying some production had already stopped.

The survey of 436 companies also showed companies continuing to prioritise the safety of their staff with more than two-thirds of companies (67%) saying they had not removed any restrictions and had no plans to do so. Almost a fifth of companies (19%) have removed some restrictions, while just 2% have removed all.

The survey also showed that the overwhelming majority of companies (97%) back free lateral flow tests for employers and statutory sick pay from day one for employees isolating and/or with Covid symptoms.

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Digital and IT skills: Whole-career approach needed 07/06/2021

EARLIER THIS year, research from UK think Tank, the Learning & Work Institute revealed that the number of students taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped by a 40% since 2015. Against a background where the industrial sector skills-shortage has been long acknowledged, this is particularly vexing. Within industry, there are many organisations, companies and individuals making a huge effort to encourage young people into STEM careers - but the message just doesn’t seem to be filtering down to secondary school level.

Digital skills were already proving vital to securing economic growth pre-pandemic; and there is absolutely no doubt that digital skills need to be front and centre of the UK’s economic recovery post-pandemic. However, according to the Learning & Work Institute’s research, 70% of young people expect employers to invest in teaching them digital skills on the job, but only half the employers surveyed for the study indicated that they are able to provide appropriate training.

While digital skills are important across the board, they are particularly vital for industry. Addressing this, SME manufacturers, supported by Made Smarter in their drive to digitalise, are upskilling over 1800 workers. The Made Smarter Adoption programme in the North West has worked with more than 1200 businesses since 2019, supporting them to introduce digital tools and technologies to help boost productivity and growth, and more recently to navigate the impact of COVID-19.
Among these, 160 businesses have secured matched funding to develop projects using technologies that enable them to integrate systems, capture and analyse data, and even create simulations of their plants and processes. Others are using 3D-printing, automation, and robotics to solve business challenges and meet increased demand.

And it’s not just the technology side of digitalisation that those engaging with the Made Smarter programme are looking at. SME leaders are also navigating the cultural challenges of digitalisation: good digital leadership; bringing the team along on the journey; effective communication of the benefits of change; capturing the technical skills and know-how of older workers before they leave the industry, attracting new digital talent into the organisation, and plugging skills gaps.

The skills required for the UK to be competitive in the face of ever-growing digitalisation need to be developed both from the ground up, through primary, secondary and further education, and through continuous training and development in the workplace. In much the same way as equipment should be looked at from a whole-life point of view, so should skills be views from a whole-career perspective, with an even more concerted effort being made to engage people of all ages, across all sectors.

AirUser Live

While the past year has seen us all embrace digital communication, there's nothing quite like live face-to-face events. Taking place at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry, on 1 December AirUser Live will be the 2021's only live UK event for the compressed air market, offering visitors a great opportunity to network and reconnect with the sector's major players and industry bodies.

As well as a comprehensive seminar programme including keynote sessions from the British Compressed Air Society and the British Compressed Gases Association, the event will feature a tabletop exhibition, giving visitors the opportunity to discover all the latest products and services under one roof.

If you represent an industry body or association and are interested in presenting at AirUser Live please email cstonestreet@westernbusiness.publishing

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Everyone can make a difference 31/03/2021

For those of you old enough to remember the 1980s sitcom ‘Yes Minister’, I’m sure that much of the satire still rings true today. One particular scene sees two civil servants outline how to approach political problems thus: Stage one, we say nothing is going to happen; Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it; Stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we can do; Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it’s too late now.

Thankfully, in the case of climate change, despite some opposing views, we have moved beyond stages one to three and are now acknowledging the problems and working towards finding solutions. Yet, as we head towards the Cop 26 event in Glasgow towards the end of the year, there is still the danger that we might slip into stage four. Understandably, for some, the sheer scale of the challenge makes it seem insurmountable  - what difference can we as individuals, or individual companies really make?

Well, as it turns out, there is quite a lot that we can do, which will make a difference. Take for example the potential for significant energy efficiency improvements in industry and infrastructure enabled by the latest and most high-efficiency motors and variable speed drives, as identified in a recent white paper from ABB.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), industry accounts for 37% of global energy use and some 30% of global energy is consumed in buildings. Making significant inroads into this sector alone could be hugely beneficial.

According to ABB, motor and drive technologies have seen rapid advancement in the past decade, with today’s designs delivering remarkable energy efficiencies. However, a significant number of industrial electric motor-driven systems currently in operation – in the region of 300 million globally – are inefficient or consume much more power than required, resulting in monumental energy wastage.

Research estimates that if these systems were replaced with optimised, high-efficiency equipment, the gains to be realised could reduce global electricity consumption by up to 10%. In turn, this would account for more than 40% of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions needed to meet the 2040 climate goals established by the Paris Agreement.

In order to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by energy efficient drives and motors in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ABB says all stakeholders have a critical role to play: public decision makers and government regulators need to incentivise rapid adoption; businesses, cities, and countries need to be aware of both the cost savings and environmental advantages and be willing to make the investment; and investors need to reallocate capital towards companies better prepared to address the climate risk.

If all this sounds like it might be a bit too involved for you, maybe just trying making the basic decision to specify the most energy efficient motors and drives wherever possible. It’s a simple policy that really will help save the world.

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Testing times 04/02/2021

AS I write, the UK is in its third period of full lockdown due to COVID-19, new variants of the virus are emerging and many businesses are of course feeling the pressure. Many, including myself and my colleagues on the IPE team, are able to work very effectively from home, however, this is not the case for everyone. In addition to the most obvious front-line workers, staff whose roles cannot be carried out from home continue to work across the manufacturing, industrial and distribution sectors. Workplaces have been adapted to accommodate social distancing and PPE has become a part of daily life.

Undoubtedly, the highly successful start to the vaccine roll-out in the UK is great news, but for much of the workforce, the reality is that they will not be inoculated until at least late summer. Add the fact that the vaccines don’t necessarily stop you from carrying and passing on the virus, and it’s pretty obvious that we all need to continue to take great care that our behaviour doesn’t risk further spread.

Anecdotally, I have heard of warehouses that have had to more or less cease operating because so many of the staff have contracted COVID-19. If businesses are to keep going, this kind of situation needs to be avoided.

While the UK’s national test and trace and system has not been particularly successful, businesses and public sector organisations are now recognising the importance of testing, with many joining a government scheme to test workers without symptoms who cannot work from home.

The scheme sees government departments are working in partnership with NHS Test and Trace to support businesses and public sector bodies to implement rapid testing, including organisations operating in the food, manufacturing, energy and retail sectors, and within the public sector including job centres, transport networks, and the military. An estimated 734,600 lateral flow tests have been distributed across the public and private sector so far, helping workers who need to leave home for work during lockdown to continue to do so, while quickly identifying those who may be carrying the virus.

Although not taking part in the particular scheme mentioned above, one company that is using rapid testing of its workforce to great effect is Co. Monaghan-based specialist forklift manufacturer, Combilift, where the measure is just part of a whole raft of initiatives the company has set in place to ensure the business continues to operate successfully in the face of the pandemic. Since 18 January employees have been tested using non-intrusive saliva tests, rather than swab testing. Lab results are available within 24, with the results being delivered via SMS. Combilift MD, Martyn McVicar reports that in the first week of testing, five asymptomatic cases were identified. Those employees then self-isolated, preventing them from inadvertently passing the virus on to their colleagues. In the second week of testing, just two cases came to light, while week three saw zero positive tests.

By providing workplace testing, Combilift is not only reducing the risk that its staff contract COVID-19, it is also giving them the reassurance that they are not going to pass the virus onto loved ones at home, some of whom might be vulnerable. And of course, this type of testing regime has wider societal benefits as it reduces the chances of undetected cases spreading more widely in the community.

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Conferences go digital! 09/10/2020

If the UK is indeed on the cusp of a second wave of COVID-19, it’s pretty obvious that for large sectors of the economy another lockdown is simply not an option. And really, if the correct measures are taken in terms of social distancing in the workplace and the correct use of good quality PPE, many businesses in the industrial sector should be able to stay open. In fact, many did successfully operate throughout the first lockdown, even if output was reduced.

One sector, however, that seems to be finding it particularly difficult to navigate its way to a ‘new normal’ is the events sector. I write this in the week which under normal circumstances would have seen Team IP&E decamp to the NEC for the PPMA show. Each morning as I boot-up my laptop and my diary pings me a reminder to be there, I can’t help but feel a bit sad that I won’t be walking the aisles, catching up with friends and colleagues and finding out about the latest launches - although to be honest my feet will probably thank me! And of course this comes in the week the MTA has announced further postponement of MACH, long with the co-located DFA Media events Drives & Controls, Fluid Power & Systems, Air-Tech, Plant & Asset Management, and Smart Industry Expo. Originally due to take place in April this year, the events have now been moved from its rescheduled slot in January 2021 and will take place in April 2022.

There is no doubt that the postponement of these and many other events will leave a big hole in the UK industrial sector, and who really knows what they will actually be like when they do eventually return?

As well as the networking opportunities, one of the big draws of industry shows over the past few years has been educational content in the form of conference programmes and seminars. Aiming to fill the gap, IPE’s parent company, Western Business Media, has recently launched a series of free-to-attend one day digital conferences running for seven consecutive Wednesdays across October and November 2021, with IP&E Live taking place on Wednesday 3rd November. Although it’s still early days, I’m really happy to report that we have our first sponsor for IP&E Live in the form of Maintec, the UK’s premier maintenance engineering event.

As well as a comprehensive programme of presentations, IP&E Live will offer delegates the opportunity to network with presenters and representatives from the conference sponsors via a networking area on the digital platform. All delegates will get CPD (Continuing Professional Development) points for attending.

If you can't wait until next November, IP&E is also holding a one day online conference aimed at those with responsibility for managing maintenance and reliability on 17th November 2020; and AirUser Live, a live extension of IP&E's highly successful annual AirUser publication for anyone involved with air power systems, which will take place in June 2021 at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry.

If you are interested finding out more about the various sponsorships packages available for any of the above, contact IP&E’s sales director Rachel Godfrey at rgodfrey@westernbusiness.media

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The future's bright, the future's green 20/01/2021

Remember life before Covid-19? Sometimes when I think about the enormity of the global pandemic, the considerations and goals of 2019 seem like a lifetime away. However, the important issues have not gone away, they have just been temporarily overshadowed, and in many cases are already starting to emerge back into the headlines and as a result, people’s consciousness.

The biggest challenge is climate change. While I appreciate that people have differing views, pre-lockdown the issue was gaining more and more prominence, and one way or another in the future it will be impossible to ignore. And even if you have your doubts about climate change, a so-called ‘Green Recovery’ is something that everyone should get behind.

There is no disguising that the parts of the UK economy have been desecrated by Covid-19, and for many businesses there will be no coming back. The virus is not going away any time soon and while some companies have shown great skill at adapting to new safe working measures, for others this is simply not an option. In order to build prosperity the UK cannot simply expect to get back the how it was pre-pandemic - new opportunities, sectors and business models must be developed and a Green Recovery could offer this.

This really is a win-win; not only can the UK improve the environment, it can also reap financial benefits, as borne out by a new report from the Manufacturing Technologies Association, which has found that if the UK moves towards Green manufacturing between £8-20 Billion could be added to GDP and 400,000 to 1 million jobs created.

The MTA report highlights that the UK is well placed to lead the way in this green future, if we act now. Since the early 90s the UK has reduced carbon emissions by 44% and is the first country to commit to net zero emissions.

Commenting, James Selka CEO of the MTA said: “Going green is not an option, it a necessity. The UK has a worldwide reputation for innovation within manufacturing and engineering. This report highlights the need to invest to make to the essential transition to a decarbonised economy.

“By embracing green technology, we can transform our economy as a whole and work towards sustainable growth, creating new, higher paid, jobs and protect the environment in the process.”

Add Brexit into the mix and the Green economy looks even more important to the UK. The sector is perfect for the type of innovation and entrepreneurship that the UK is quite rightly very proud of, and will need to leverage to the full as an independent trading partner in the world market.

Covid-19 and the lockdown measures put in place to slow its spread have resulted in the first major drop in emissions for over half a century, and while this is by no means an ideal or sustainable way to achieve environmental benefits, it has served to once again bring the need to stem climate change into focus.

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Manufacturing most cyber-attacked industry in Ireland 22/05/2020

There is no doubt that cyber crime is rapidly evolving with new innovation and increasingly automated attacks - a fact borne out by 2020 Global Threat Intelligence Report from (GTIR) launched by NTT. And the report also shows that in the UK and Ireland, for the first time Manufacturing became the most attacked sector representing almost a third of all attacks, while Technology was the most attacked sector globally.

GTIR reveals that threat actors are innovating faster than ever before. Developing multi-function attack tools and using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities, attackers are investing in automation techniques; 21% of attacks globally were in the form of a vulnerability scanner. Despite efforts to layer up their defences, many organisations are unable to stay ahead of attackers, while others are struggling to do the basics like patching old vulnerabilities.

Manufacturing regularly appears as one of the most attacked industries globally. Most commonly linked to intellectual property (IP) theft, it increasingly faces financially motivated data breaches, global supply chain risks and risks from unpatched vulnerabilities. The UK was the only country (apart from Hong Kong) this year where Manufacturing topped the list of most attacked sectors, representing 29% of all attacks, with Technology (19%) second and Business and Professional Services (17%) third. Government and Finance made up the other two sectors in the top five.

Reconnaissance attacks accounted for half of all hostile activity in the UK and Ireland, with web application the next most common form of attack (22%). Reconnaissance activity (60%) was also the most common attack type against manufacturers followed by web application attacks (36%).

While for many years, the manufacturing environment seemed to slip under the radar of cyber criminals, it should come as no surprise that it is now one of the main targets. Ever increasing connectivity, combined with a sometimes lackadaisical attitude towards cyber security, means manufacturing is well and truly in in the spotlight when it comes to cyber crime.

As Rory Duncan, Security Go-to-Market Leader, NTT, comments: “UK manufacturing has become a major target for attackers in recent years as a result of the increased risks brought about from the convergence of IT and Operational Technology (OT). The biggest worry is that security has lagged behind in this sector, potentially exposing systems and processes to attack. Poor OT security is a legacy issue; many systems were designed with efficiency, throughput and regulatory compliance in mind rather than security. In the past, OT also relied on a form of ‘security through obscurity’. The protocols, formats and interfaces in these systems were often complex and proprietary and different from those in IT systems, so it was difficult for attackers to mount a successful attack. As more and more systems come online, hackers are innovating and see these systems as ripe for attack.”

All this means that the manufacturing sector must treat cyber security with the utmost importance. Businesses need to educate themselves about the risks and ensure they have cyber-resilient culture right from the bottom to the top, employing defence-in-depth models and ensuring cyber security is a top priority.

Charlotte Stonestreet

Managing Editor


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Business agility is a lifesaver 07/04/2020

As a write this while working from home, I still can’t quite get my head around these unprecedented times we find ourselves in.

I’m sure I’m as guilty as the next person in that I read the initial reports about the coronavirus in China and didn’t really give them much thought, after all, relatively recent threats from SARS and swine flu didn’t fully manifest in the West despite early fears. This time, however, with Covid-19 there really is a pandemic - and here in the UK, as in many countries, we do seem to be underprepared. Beyond the loo-roll and pasta hoarding, there are reports of frontline medical workers being woefully under protected with a lack of even the most basic PPE.

And then there are the ventilators. In more ordinary times, it’s not something you would necessarily give much thought to, but suddenly the fact the UK has between 5000-8000 ventilators is very worrying. In the light of this, the Prime Minister spoke to over sixty leading UK manufacturing businesses and organisations to call on them to help the step up production of vital medical equipment, including life-saving ventilators. As well as manufacturing the components themselves, he asked manufacturers to rise to the immediate challenge by offering skills and expertise across  any part of the process: design, procurement, assembly, testing, and shipping.

While this was greeted with a degree of scepticism in some corners - What about the correct certification for medical devices? (valid) You can’t build a ventilator on a car line! (bit defeatist) - within a matter of days progress was made and three industrial consortia from the aerospace and automotive sectors are racing to plug the gap, starting with development of a basic ventilator prototype within a week. The aim is to produce 5000 units as soon as possible, followed by a further 30,000. Manufacturing is hoped to start within a month. If this happens – and reports seem positive that, one way or another, it will – the ability of these manufacturing and engineering firms to be agile will potentially save thousands of lives.

Further down the line, once the medical emergency is over and society can get a handle on the true scale of disruption caused by Covid-19, who knows what the industrial sector will look like? I certainly wouldn't like to make any predictions, but one thing I am sure of is that agility - of thought, culture and process – will be a key quality amongst the strongest players.

Charlotte Stonestreet

Managing Editor, Industrial Plant & Equipment

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Charlotte Stonestreet is an experienced b2b editor and has worked across a range of industrial titles including Handling & Storage Solutions, Factory Equipment and Materials Handling News.

She has also contributed to the 'Energy Procurement essential guide to excellence'.

Having gained a degree in English with Media Studies, Charlotte started out her publishing career on a voluntary basis, producing a newsletter for Mencap.