2020 Automation and Robotics Feature

Resilience will be steel industry’s strength as we enter a new decade

As Ficep UK celebrates its 20th anniversary in February 2020, Mark Jones, who’s been at the helm of the company these past two decades, has witnessed first hand the changing landscape in steel processing and the manufacturing sector. Here, he looks at where the industry has come from to the biggest challenges and opportunities in 2020 and beyond.

As we enter a new decade, the manufacturing sector and in particular the steel processing & fabrication industry is on the brink of deep seated change. From the need to reduce our environmental impact, skill shortages and the transition to smart factories, including widespread automation the next decade will be focused on tackling big issues.

Looking beyond immediate uncertainty

Uncertainty was the main theme for most of 2019, with 2020 Q1 growth forecasts downgraded to 0.3 from 0.6 due to both the UK and global outlook. Collectively there is only so long we can stargaze into our immediate future when there are larger factors at play affecting the long term steel industry. In steel processing and fabrication, automation with the advent of smart factories will have a far-reaching impact on the areas mentioned above.

As we head into a new decade change looks set to become a regular feature across the business world, as the sands shift towards different practices and behaviours. For industries like steel, that means developing a readiness to adapt and evolve two things which we have, traditionally, been slow to do.

Recognising our progress

Whilst it often feels like the only news talked about in the steel industry is bad news, it’s not the truth and we must appreciate the steps the industry has taken to improve productivity, overcome economic downturns and work smarter in the last two decades. It has been a fight, often to the brink, but one we’ve overcome time and again. In my mind there are some significant milestones which have brought about positive progress to our industry.

The development of software and roll out of BIM has been a huge step forward for the steel processing industry. The advent of software like Steel Projects saw a switch from relying on hundreds of DSTV files to one Xml file. It changed how we organised our work-flows and gave us more control and visibility of the process - both online and offline.

So, too has the machinery evolved in the past 20 years. Back in the late 80s we were one of the first companies to introduce Windows operating systems into our machines and this particular development has been a godsend for many companies, reducing downtime and giving faster reaction times rather than sending engineers out for expensive fault diagnosis.

The HMI ( Human Machine Interface ) the interface between the operator and the controller (CNC) has been significantly simplified over the last two decades. The ability to provide live information enabled operators to understand maintenance routines, programming or machine error codes, sensor information on the system, warning messages, full system views, edit programs and change operating parameters and schedule maintenance settings. The next step for industry 4.0 would be sensor feedback for all areas of the customers’ systems for cloud based condition monitoring and predictive maintenance.

How our past influences our future

If we know change is coming and we know that uncertainty can be overcome then it gives us two valuable tools to head into this new decade with clear focus. The peaks and troughs of the last twenty years have given the steel industry a resilience which we can use to our advantage, but we must pay attention to the lessons learned.

Digital will dominate manufacturing

Whilst it feels as though we’ve been talking about Industry 4.0 for a long time broad scale adoption is still a way off. This is largely due to the need for a combined and holistic switchover from analogue to fully digital systems, a fact which can cause a bottleneck for many fabricators and steel processors.

Yet its adoption will impact almost every facet of the steel processing sector; from the ability to track and record the entire processing journey through blockchain, to optimising productivity to reduce emissions and create sleeker end to end operations.

If we take anything from our history it’s that revolutions are integral to our sector’s survival.

Going into 2020 with such tumultuous times at our back, we need to hasten the adoption of automation to remain competitive, not just in the UK but on the global stage.