Australia really needs to lift a gear in the field of industrial automation to avoid falling further behind. But it’s just not happening. Why?

Personally, I think there are a number of factors, such as the lack of continuity of staff across the board from end users to suppliers. There is a lack of direction of manufacturers to adopt continuing improvement. And often the decision to go ahead is not made in Australia.

If you look at the differences between the Australian industrial automation market and that of say Europe, it is what I call the “continuity factor” that really stands out.

This is glaringly obvious if you attend the same international exhibitions over the years and you find you are still talking to the same people from most of the automation suppliers - particularly if they are from Northern Europe.

The “continuity factor” really helps in the continuance of development and knowledge in a vein of a particular technology.

As an example, if a manufacturer anywhere in the world has a high turnover of its key engineering staff then the probability of that manufacturer being able to conceive, procure and implement an appropriate automation project is severely hampered, and probably will not happen - thus falling further behind.

Over the years it’s not uncommon for an automation systems integrator (ASI) in Australia to be asked to look at solving the same automation problem for the third time, with the manufacturing staff completely unaware that the problem has been “doing the rounds” for some years but with no result.

The effect on this manufacturer is disastrous as it will continue to fall behind in productivity - possibly to the point of no return as the cost to upgrade may have now gone past the tipping point and has become an unviable option.

This “continuity factor” not only plagues the manufacturers it’s also a problem for the ASI as it appears that millennials (in particular) simply don’t want to stay anywhere long enough to actually really get to grips with the role and the technology as depth of knowledge is not high on the agenda .
This particularly exasperating as the technology depth in automation is continuously increasing to the extent that companies need more exposure to it in order to cope and fully absorb the issues.

My extensive experience in interviewing many candidates and listening to the tales of woe they have brought on themselves in a series of jobs that actually all started by them leaving a perfectly good job for a seemingly better one that did not turn out so well is significant. The only winners it appears are the recruitment consultants.

As a result, in some manufacturers, the ASI is one of the few “continuity factors” they have and while this is not ideal, at least there is some continuance of knowledge.

It’s also worth noting that many solid automation projects just don’t go ahead because the decision-making process is now overseas and no longer in Australian hands. This is another reason why automation projects simply don’t happen or die through lack of continuity.

I would also point out that the continuity factor is considerably less of a problem in rural or far-flung locations, where it is refreshing to engage with people that really know how their plant works and have done so for many years.

So what’s the answer? There’s no single answer.

However, procrastination from CFOs and senior management in manufacturing companies can lead to key staff moving on as there’s not enough actually happening (as already mentioned some don’t need much to move on).

On average it takes about 6 to 9 months for an ASI to get to the point of having a solid proposal to fit a solution. Then it can be anything up to a year to fully implement the system. Senior management will complain that this is way too long. And they are right.

But these long timescales are generally caused by a lack of engagement from the client, leaving the ASI with a shortage of key information. This will be made worse by continuing staff changes, and worse still by the need for overseas approval.

You can see how so many projects are never completed.

I guess if a manufacturer believes it has a valid project then the company should do the due diligence in picking the ASI that’s right for the job. This doesn’t mean inviting eight different ASI’s to “have a go”. That leads to all sorts of differing specs that will create confusion for the manufacturer and ensure that project will go nowhere.

Experienced ASIs will know this is a shambles from the start and will allocate resources accordingly or not bother at all.

Australian manufacturing industry needs to wake up to what’s happening in the world and get cracking on doing what it can now. Start with the low-hanging fruit – the easy projects. There are generally plenty of these in many plants we visit. But do get on with it.

If I sound concerned, it’s because I’m not sure how many years Australian manufacturing has left if it does not wake up and start actually doing it instead of talking about it.

Colin Wells is Managing Director of Robotic Automation.

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