Universal Automation: Unleashing the Big Picture Post-Brexit and COVID-19
By Mark Yeeles, VP of Industrial Automation at Schneider Electric
Current political and worldwide events have emphasised the need for extensive contingency planning. With COVID-19 changing the world as we know it and new pressures of Brexit coming into force, UK and Ireland industrial enterprises, in particular manufacturers, need to learn how to adapt to unprecedented scenarios while staying on course for profitability.
While the impact of COVID-19 is still being assessed, UK industry is already discovering new opportunities to survive, thrive and future-proof. Manufacturers are becoming more agile to rapidly changing market conditions to ensure they can meet profitability and productivity goals. Navigating this new landscape will be a challenge but using the pandemic as a catalyst for positive change will be essential to surviving in the future.
Embracing the new reality
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis and subsequent economic complications represents one of the biggest shake ups to the UK manufacturing ecosystem. It has perpetuated the volatility of the market at a time where Brexit was already shaping UK and Ireland industry. Manufacturers are facing continued downward pressure on demand, production and revenues. With growth in UK manufacturing activity falling to a nine-month low in February 2021, manufacturers must brace themselves for setbacks and plan for the future.
This new era will require an extended ecosystem of partners collaborating to succeed. It is vital that businesses use their workforce effectively and find alternative ways of performing tasks for which they have a shortage of either staff or resources to guarantee that their business continues to thrive. This is where automation comes in. Businesses must continue to choose which operations need to be automated, the level of automation required and which technologies to adopt to guarantee success and eliminate downtime.
Introducing and adopting next-generation open automation will make this possible, breaking free from the propriety locked-in model currently in place. Manufacturers will need to welcome a new era of a la carte universal automation with open arms, moving the industry from a hardware-centric to software-centric model in order to succeed in these turbulent times.
While the pandemic has been testing on every level, as we look to the future, we can remain optimistic about the manufacturing industry. The industry has stepped up and demonstrated its ability to support business, protect workers and spearhead economic growth. Focusing on business-specific outcomes, using technology to increase agility, operating multi-locally and optimising supply chains are proving to be key to industrial resilience. This has not only benefitted local businesses but has also empowered local communities and supported big business in the long term.
Manufacturers have had to identify the direct effects that Brexit and COVID-19 have on their critical operations and rethink both their business models and the automation of their tasks.
Surprisingly, reshaping the industry could deliver huge benefits – but only with greater ambition. Many may find this challenging, but this is exactly where universal automation will play a critical role for those willing to adopt it.
Universal automation describes the adoption of a common standard (IEC 61499) for all automation systems, making them easy to plug together, implement and share. Instead of the manufacturer being dependent on systems provided by only one specified vendor – as is the case today – end users can build the architecture they need with the best ‘plug and produce’ solutions from multiple providers.
Current industrial automation system architecture has done a good job of advancing industry to where we are today, but the post-COVID and Brexit industries of the future need to fundamentally change their automation technology model. By adopting universal automation, manufacturers will be able to create step-change operational improvements capable of keeping up with the changing habits of consumers and the dynamics of an ever-changing global economy. Manufactures will ultimately be able to pivot production as quickly as demand changes.
With manufacturers facing constant upheaval as a result of political uncertainties and regularly shifting consumer needs in the wake of the pandemic, the adoption of universal automation will provide certainty to the sector, future proofing them to be able to take advantage of innovations yet to be conceived. Industry siloes and vendor lock-in must be eliminated, with equipment interoperability and data-driven insight boosting the industry’s agility, profitability and resilience.
Ushering in a new dawn
With ongoing uncertainty, 2021 will continue to throw new challenges and opportunities at industry. While we can’t control the implications of Brexit and the pandemic, nor predict what future disruption there might be, resilience planning is very much in our control. In moving away from the outdated, rigidity of hardware-centric models to the adaptability of a software-centric manufacturing system, universal automation offers a breakthrough.
With continued investment in innovation and upholding efficiency, productivity and sustainability, a new generation of British industrial players will be created. Industry must embrace these benefits of innovation and digitalisation to succeed.