Innovating within the manufacturing sector: AI, Robotics and Automation

  • Sync NI met with Colin Spence, Director of Derry based FAST Technologies to discuss their 2021 joint venture with Magherafelt-based Bloc Group and creating a manufacturing innovation powerhouse.

    FAST (Factory Automation & Systems Technologies) currently develops bespoke technical solutions for a global client base including Unilever, Caterpillar and Seagate providing ‘best-in-class’ manufacturing and automation and are paving the future for companies advancing in Industry 4.0. Alongside Bloc Group, these two highly innovative, export-focused manufacturing operations which excel in design and engineering are developing the technology that will shape the future of manufacturing both locally and exporting this expertise throughout the world generating new growth and opportunity across the Northwest of Northern Ireland.

    Bloc Blinds and FAST Technologies announced a partnership in Oct 2021 – what were the obvious synergies between the two businesses?

    The level of joint expertise which this relationship brings in terms of ‘best-in-class’ manufacturing and automation helps form long term growth strategies for FAST. 

     As a solutions provider to the wider business market we have a proven track record in the application of automation across all sectors and industries, and together with the Bloc Group, we will take this expertise to the next level, ultimately helping organisations streamline and enhance their business processes and operations.

    Given the current climate of supply chain challenges, labour and skills shortages, this is a critical need on a global scale. The obvious synergies between Bloc and FAST will underpin the continued success of both brands and offer great economic potential globally. Ultimately we are two locally-owned organisations sharing a common culture and philosophy.

    FAST increased export sales by 110% by expanding its growth into US and Europe and are expected to grow by 45% over the next 18 months following joining forces with the Bloc Group.  The bespoke automation and Robotics systems that FAST can provide offers huge opportunities to businesses looking to improve and enhance their operations systems and processes.

    Having worked at FAST Technologies over the last 14 years what would you say has been the most impressive and technological development within the company during this time?

    There have been so many technological advancements, the pace of technology has been incredible and can be seen all around us from the electrical and electronic products we use daily to the cars we drive, we have even designed and built production lines where robots make the robots that cut your grass!

    Industrial Robotics, autonomous mobile robots and collaborative robotics are mesmerising to watch and continue to impress me, but for me collaborative robot is right up there. Collaborative robots, or cobots, are a new incarnation of manufacturing robot designed to work alongside humans rather than in their own space. They're just as effective as their larger counterparts, sometimes more so, with the added benefit of sharing workspaces with humans. Maybe in the future, we'll replace the majority of our workforce with robots, allowing us to introduce a better balance to our work and life, provide opportunity to pursue creative endeavours or other hobbies and offering opportunity for upskilling employees and higher paid jobs. For now, however, the best we can hope for is smaller robots that we can work alongside.

    Can Northern Irish companies truly compete at a Global level in manufacturing bespoke automation and Robotics systems? 

    FAST Technologies already has automated systems making products for our clients globally so yes, it is possible. We are a passionate little country and passion is everything! Skills without passion are worthless. We need to develop a cohesive ecosystem of passion to innovate, with the appropriate skills training, collaboration and infrastructure to support – we can definitely compete, and with continued focus, I am optimistic for the future.

    Is there any manufacturing process that cannot be automated?

    We can expect automation on a scale unlike anything we’ve seen before. Few jobs will be completely untouched by AI and robotics.

    You may think that elements of your job are so complex and nuanced that they couldn’t possibly be done by a machine. As recently as five years ago, it would have been far-fetched to envision replacing truck drivers with automated vehicles. Today, it seems almost inevitable. Perhaps our biggest blind spot with respect to digital disruption is that we’re unable to imagine the new jobs that technology creates and the opportunity there is for future employment in these new roles.

    Although slightly before my time, if we think back to the early days of the personal computer revolution in the late 1970s, the best minds in the business couldn’t imagine how omnipresent personal computers would soon become. And certainly, nobody envisioned the legions of jobs that would emerge in entirely new categories opening up a world of opportunities for employees.

    NI was once at the centre of the industrial revolution – are there any long lost industries that could return to NI with the aid of automation?

    We must look to the future! The rise of advanced manufacturing will open up more opportunities for NI businesses, labour shortages, especially in manufacturing industry, are a constant concern and automation can address this. It is providing solutions for companies and helping our companies survive and compete so that we can meet current demand, be more efficient enabling expansion and increase the potential for exports.

    Let’s consider Denmark as an example, despite having a much smaller working population than the UK, Denmark is the fourth most productive country in the world, while the UK is ranked 17th. This success is underpinned by the economy’s mass adoption of new, flexible automation technologies, such as cobots. NI needs to adopt this mindset, quickly!

    What aspect of the future of automation excites you most?

    The exciting part for me is that future automation will actually improve our work experience and if we do it right we can create a symbiotic relationship between human and machine.

    Workplace safety for example is one area that automation can really make an impact given 80-90 % of accidents in the workplace happen due to human errors. This is something sophisticated automation, robotics and AI video technology can prevent in predictable work environments. Automation can also handle a lot of mundane, boring tasks that humans do not want to do ultimately creating a much better work life balance and a happier work environment.

    How important are our universities when it comes to developing the manufacturing technologies of the future?

    Firstly, we as engineers need to market our sector better, starting with our future engineers and their parents! Engineering is a job for life with excellent career prospects that can provide a great work and life balance. It all starts at our schools who need a strong focus on STEM.

    Our Universities and FE Colleges need a combined Manufacturing, Automation, Mechatronics, Software and Robotics course offerings at all levels. There needs to be the capability and opportunity for the colleges and universities to outsource significant syllabus content and modules to industry partners that can provide hands on practical experience with the latest Industry advancements and hardware. We currently are engaged with the Ulster University locally and NWRC to develop and tailor an engineering program that can produce competent students that ultimately will help deliver the 10X vision for NI. This will be enabled alongside the development of our FAST Academy with our industry partners and customers providing the bespoke training and sponsorship for students to drive capability and our combined future growth plans.

    I am a strong advocate of the Fraunhofer model in Germany where Industry focus groups drive research and proof of concept development via the universities. The Fraunhofer delivers what the economy needs: innovation, which is one of the most important factors in achieving commercial success. To maintain an edge in a competitive global market you need to understand your customers’ needs, deploy the very latest technologies, and respond quickly to market developments.

    To facilitate our own extensive growth plans, we have launched our FAST Academy, targeted at those interested in STEM subjects and with a view to progress their career in mechanical and electrical engineering.  A pipeline of skilled individuals is integral to our global growth strategy, and we are currently recruiting.  There will be more opportunities with Fast Academy in the months and years to come to help us facilitate our global growth plans.

    This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download your FREE copy and sign up to receive future digital editions here.

    About the author

    Aoife is a Sync NI writer with a previous background working in print, online and broadcast media. She has a keen interest in all things tech related. To connect with Aoife feel free to send her an email or connect on LinkedIn.

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