It proved to be enlightening and I was struck by the committee being as interested in where we had come from as a manufacturing nation as they were in our future. The committee was also keen to explore how the UK was faring in terms of Automation and Digitalisation, especially in comparison with the front-running countries from whom we might learn.
As the hour-long session progressed, I had the opportunity to highlight a manufacturing sub-sector, namely machine building - such as textile, printing and packaging machines. I highlighted that designing and building machines in Britain had been one of our industrial strengths and that even during my career, I had seen the sector decline as nations like Germany and Italy had continued to invest and thrive through more widespread deployment of automation technology – which helped keep their companies competitive.
On reflection, this exchange may have left the BEIS committee thinking the UK’s machinery sector was facing an irreversible decline, but there are still some great British companies in this space…
For example, TrakRap, is a packaging equipment business in Skelmersdale who provide machines and services to CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) companies who, in turn, work with the major retailers.
TrakRap offer sustainable solutions to their customers and ensure products packed by their machines arrive on supermarket shelves in perfect condition. The traditional method of secondary (or transportation) packaging uses heat shrink technology to produce smaller quantity packs, often suitable for replenishing shelves in store.
This method however isn’t always optimum: it is energy-intensive and often uses more packaging material than necessary whilst also not being suitable for fresh produce or chilled goods which don’t fare well through a heat tunnel.
TrakRap were convinced that a cold process called orbital wrapping - which features an ultra-thin stretch film that doesn’t need heat to shrink it - was the answer to significantly reduce the energy consumed and packaging material required. But to be able to develop a new generation of flexible wrapping machines that could repeatably pack many varieties of consumable products at speed, they needed to innovate.
Siemens had worked with TrakRap’s extended development team to deploy an automation system which could accurately control the motion of the ultra-thin film and maintain tension throughout the complex cold wrapping process.
It worked, and soon TrakRap customers were asking about applying the orbital process to other product lines. One of these was aerosol cans - which due to flammability would clearly be better kept away from a heat tunnel - but the shape and size of the cans meant they were also prone to instability when being rotary-wrapped under tension. (rather like skittles at a bowling alley!)
To meet this particular challenge a collaborative project team was set up including TrakRap, Siemens, The University of Bradford, Innovate UK and The Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry.
As a result, TrakRap were able to develop a digital twin of one of their existing machines, a fully-functioning 3-D virtual version of what they used on the factory floor. This was a sophisticated model that went well beyond the simple geometric models we are used to from conventional Computer Aided Design (CAD).
Numerous virtual packaging scenarios were simulated, adjusted and re-run digitally. New processes were stress-tested, and additional elements (such as the control system program) were added to the virtual production line.
The digital twin’s ability to mirror, measure and report on real-time results immediately gave TrakRap insights which would have been hard come by and very expensive from traditional prototyping and testing. For example, the virtual system showed how the force and direction of the first - and most important - layer of wrapping impacted individual cans, which in turn could make the whole batch wobble and fall.
Eventually, a finely-balanced protocol was established through the digital twin process which successfully kept the whole tray of cans stable and upright during wrapping. When this was transferred to the real production line, TrakRap had saved an estimated 30% in machine development costs, whilst their time to market was reduced by around 40%.
However, TrakRap’s use of the digital twin didn’t stop there and they have gone on to use the virtual production line to focus on predictive quality, predictive maintenance and other key productivity drivers which has enabled a staggering 72% downtime improvement, whilst maintenance call-out costs have more than halved.
With the initial success of TrakRap’s machines, it wasn’t long before Martin Leeming, CEO at the company was looking at new business models such as “pay per wrap”. An opportunity that see’s TrakRap partner with Siemens Financial Services to provide customers a servitised option which eliminates conventional capital outlay and delivers cash-positive savings through efficiency.
For me, stories like this where a traditional manufacturing business like TrakRap works with innovation partners to explore how digitalisation can boost productivity, cut costs, enhance functionality and process insight, grow the order book and impact on the bottom line is at the heart of the Industry 4.0 opportunity for every sector, not just packaging.
Whilst I didn’t have time to share all of this with the BEIS Select Committee, I am delighted to say that TrakRap will be joining me at the Siemens Digital Talks conference in Liverpool on June 11th to share their experience and highlight what’s next for them on their Industry 4.0 journey.
If you are interested in attending, visit Siemens’ UK website and search for Digital Talks in the events section or follow this link https://goo.gl/J8XkbJ
I look forward to seeing you there.