The Automation Engineer speaks to Alex Harvey – US marketing director for Control Techniques – to learn his view on what the future holds for automation in America.
It is often said that the manufacturing sector in the developed world, and particularly in the USA, is in decline. And a promise to reinvigorate American manufacturing is a standard part of any presidential election campaign.
Yet America remains the world’s second largest manufacturer, and was only displaced from the top spot by China in 2010.
The Financial Times, a British business newspaper, has recently argued that one reason the US can compete, despite its comparatively high wages, is its enthusiastic adoption of high tech automation.
Automation Engineer: Why should American firms be interested in automation?
Alex Harvey: American firms need to automate if they want to remain relevant. It’s the nature of our highly successful economy: American exporters need to automate to compete with low cost producers elsewhere, whilst firms supplying the American home market need to automate to compete with foreign suppliers. All companies always need to be thinking about how to get more production out of their existing facilities.
AE: Tell us about US automation: which sector is most exciting and why?
AH: One area that’s at the forefront is automotive.
Car manufacturing is all about improving productivity through automation. That’s because, as an industry, profitability is linked directly to speed of manufacture and machine availability.
It was the need for high speed automation in the automotive industry that triggered the invention of the programmable logic controller (PLC) – a mainstay of modern automation applications. A PLC is essentially a centralized microprocessor based device that controls automated processes.
My first automation job was doing control systems in my home country – the UK. We used to automate hoists in coal mines in south Wales and north England. Back in those days we were using hard-wired relay systems. In the coal mines I saw, you’d have a panel with 500 control relays all wired together. The same sort of equipment was applied to the automotive industry at that time. They needed a better way that would increase uptime. Microprocessors came along and that’s what led to the PLC.
Because it constantly needs to improve productivity, the automotive industry is quick to adopt new technology. Currently non-PLC based distributed control systems, where each variable speed/servo drive carries its own processing power, are growing in popularity in the automotive industry because of the improvement in response times.
Another market focused on automation is food packaging machinery. The US is a big exporter of food products and automation technology helps US food producers export more competitively.
Rubber and plastics is important too. There are a significant amount of plastic products made in the USA at the moment because the cost of the oil based raw materials used in this sector is currently low. The plastics manufacturers are focused on improving energy efficiency and some are upgrading extruders with permanent magnet motors due to the high energy efficiencies that are possible.
One exciting area, though it’s not strictly manufacturing, is the entertainment industry. This is interesting because it uses high end technology, and because it’s moving people, not products, so it’s a totally different challenge. The whole industry is open to cutting edge drives, motors and automation technology.
AE: What would your advice be to a US manufacturer who was looking to improve their automation technology?
AH: Be open minded: look beyond conventional PLC-based systems and consider distributed control. A conventional PLC system can have a long scan time – so when you are controlling multiple axes on a machine it may limit capacity. A distributed solution can offer greater productivity at lower cost. When you move the intelligence to the level of the drive, it can provide faster response times.
You should also think about open architecture solutions. Some automation suppliers use proprietary software to tie you in to buying all components from them. An open supplier sells components compatible with products from other manufacturers, allowing you to always choose the most suitable component for your needs.
If you are a US machine manufacturer, and you want to export, you should consider motion related safety functionality. The EU has the strongest safety standards. US machine manufacturers may find it makes sense for them to implement EU safety standards to avoid having to redesign their products if they get the chance to export them.
AE: What’s the most exciting thing about new automation technologies?
AH: An exciting thing is definitely the potential for energy savings. Moving things takes a lot of energy, and well-designed automation systems have the potential to provide impressive energy savings.
Reducing carbon emissions and helping the environment is something that inspires me. I think it’s the fun part of this job.
AE: What about the future? Where will growth come from for the US automation sector over the next 50 years?
AH: US automation firms have a global reputation for high end solutions. This means there is high export potential for US-made and designed machines.
Having worked in many countries around the world, I feel that the US is one of the leading markets when it comes to adopting new technologies. You see this in the US consumer market, where people are always quick to adopt new products. And you see it in the B2B market too, including automation. I am not sure why this is, perhaps because the culture of the US encourages change and innovation.
Whatever the reason, the result is that US original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) design and develop some of the most innovative machines, so global demand is high. By delivering the latest automation technology, US automation firms help OEMs grow their vital global businesses.
AE: Automation gets a lot of bad press in the US as a job destroyer – what are your thoughts?
AH: The USA is a well established economy and, compared to countries in many other world areas, rates of pay are high. It’s great that pay is high in the US: it means people can have a high quality of life, and can afford cars and washing machines and so on. But it also means US manufacturers can be undercut by foreign firms. In a country where labor costs are low, a factory can afford to hire thousands of workers. In the US, that often isn’t possible.
So, while the public often see automation in a bad light – as a job destroyer, I don’t. I believe that automation creates jobs. For the US economy to be relevant, automation is vital.
There has been panic about automation’s impact on jobs in the US since the end of the Second World War. President Kennedy was giving speeches on it in the 1960s. Yet, in 2016, we have an unemployment rate of under 5%.
And not only do we have low unemployment, but we also have high living standards. One reason for this is productivity. Automation increases our productivity, and that generates more wealth.
And you never know, one day, as we keep generating more wealth, we might even have more time for leisure – although this is not the American way!