Tucked away in a quiet pocket of Cheshire in the north west of England, from the outside the Siemens Congleton factory looks like it hasn’t changed since it opened as a warehouse and switchboard workshop in 1971. But go past the nondescript exterior and you’ll find a thriving workplace: the plant manufacturers more than 1.3 million motor drives each year, exported worldwide to be used in power baggage handling systems, pumps, factory automation, and even roller coasters.
At the heart of the factory is Sarah Black-Smith, an engineer-turned-operations manager who oversees the entire manufacturing floor. She’s dedicated, cares about the workforce, and regularly goes above and beyond the call of duty. “I really enjoy the challenge of motivating people,” says Sarah, who credits a childhood fascination in motorsport for spurring her interest in engineering. “I was totally into Formula 1 when I was at school,” she says. “This was in the mid 90s, back in the days of racing greats Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher. But then it got boring because the drivers stopped being able to overtake and there wasn’t any competition.”
After finishing the second year of a manufacturing engineering degree, she was all set to begin a year long graduate program, sponsored by Siemens. But her career took an unexpected turn when Siemens offered her a role in their Lincoln plant; a few years later, she moved to Congleton and worked her way up the internal ladder.
For Sarah, life at the factory isn’t just a job — it’s a family institution. “A lot of generations of families work at Congleton, most have only ever worked at Siemens,” she says. “Our employee turnover is really low because not many people leave.”
But the future wasn’t always this bright
Ten years ago, the factory was on the cusp of falling victim to the global financial crisis. Orders began dropping off and before long, the ever-dwindling profit margins meant operations had to be scaled back to a four-day week. It was the lowest point in the factory’s history. Management were forced to take drastic action.
The factory decided they needed a change of structure. Up until that point, it was management who were making decisions about how to make processes more efficient. But they weren’t the ones working day-in and day-out on the production line. So Sarah and her team implemented a Continuous Improvement Programme (CIP), a popular method in the manufacturing industry that helps identify opportunities for streamlining work and reducing waste.
First, they overhauled how decisions were made
For Congleton, CIP meant scaling back upper management’s role in decision-making, and instead leaning on the expertise of the operators, especially when facing the daunting task of meeting efficiency targets. The theory was that those who knew the whole process inside-out were the most likely to spot any wasteful activity.
Sarah and her team asked a select group of engineers and operators to temporarily step away from the day-to-day business and gave them the time and space to explore different opportunities. They looked at reducing activities that weren’t adding any value in order to lower labour costs, and identified how to make the process flow better.
Technology needed to play a role — but where?
Once they’d shifted the balance of power, it was time to think about how and where automation technology could help the factory streamline production processes. Automation and robotics allow machines to perform tasks with minimal human input; in a factory like Congleton, automation specifically refers to freeing operators from dirty, repetitive and dangerous jobs. It also helps to improve quality by eliminating errors and reducing variability.
“The key word here is minimal,” says Sarah. “It’s all very well and good having a robot that can lift something up and place it down in a new spot, but if a human has to control it, then the whole process quickly becomes counterproductive.”
Unsurprisingly, the team discovered that there were plenty of parts of the manufacturing process that could be automated. But unless they demolished the entire building — along with decades of improvements — starting from scratch wasn’t an option. Any solution they came up with needed to complement their setup, not work against it. After a few months of introspection, Sarah’s team of engineers had gained enough insight to start putting their newfound knowledge into practise.
Weighing up the pros and cons
If carefully implemented, automation has the potential to radically improve productivity levels. Say it takes someone 20 minutes to pick up an object, test it, and move it to the next stage of production; a robot could do the same thing in 15 minutes, with a smaller margin of error. Not only does it speed up the process, but it frees people up to focus on other aspects of their work.
But automation has risks, so striking a careful balance is essential to making it work. After all, rocking the boat is one thing, but tipping it over is counterproductive.
It also comes with a high level of risk. When thinking about ways they could raise productivity, the main hurdle Sarah and her team faced was how to be sure that anything they introduced wouldn’t end up causing more problems than the benefit it created. “From the get-go, we knew we needed to remove any potential risks of bringing in new technologies,” says Sarah. “Despite being part of Siemens, we’re only 500 people and we don’t have an endless supply of capital. We’ve got to be really careful about what we invest in.”
Slow and steady wins the race
Inspired by the test-and-learn methodology of CIP, Sarah and her team proposed a phased approach to introducing new types of technology into the factory. “Each time we wanted to explore a new technology, we’d bring together operators and engineers for a week or so,” says Sarah. “This meant the people on the shopfloor were now the ones driving the innovation. They had technology roadmaps to determine the next five to ten years. They asked: What’s the disruptive technology that’s coming through right now? What’s the technology that we have access to right now that will continue to progress?”
Once they had a good understanding of what value the technology could bring to the production process, they used virtual reality to test it.
“In 2014, we installed a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE),” says Sarah. “It’s basically a simulated environment that recreates a near perfect virtual version of the factory.” Rear projection screens line the wall of a cubed room while engineers don VR headsets that project 3D objects suspended in space. Miles of production lines are suddenly condensed into a single room, allowing the engineers to iron out any technical creases before taking the plunge.
“Say we’re introducing a new robot, and we need to find out what’s the best way for that to run,” says Sarah. “The engineers will spend a week going through the whole production process and building it up in a 3D environment to see physically how it will look. This is the process for any new technology that comes into the factory.”
Human and machine, side by side
The next stage of the factory’s evolution will be introducing cobots (collaborative robots) to work alongside employees to help speed up or streamline the manufacturing process. Cobots differ drastically from other robots (who are designed to operate autonomously or with limited guidance) because they physically interact with humans and are best at small repetitive jobs where human error is high.
“It takes a product off one of our operators, puts it onto a welder, welds the parts together, tests it, and then gives it back to a different operator,” says Sarah. “The next step will be using the cobot to build the actual assembly, then weld, test, and pack it. But we’re not there yet.”
The end game for Congleton is full cyber-physical manufacturing; connecting all of the cobots via the Internet of Things to make them smarter. In the future, Sarah says, it’s possible that factory floors will be full of machines tracking their own health, increasing their own productivity and learning from their own mistakes.
People will always be at the heart of Congleton
The strive for automation isn’t about replacing flesh with metal, but the workplace is still understandably weary. Sarah know technology will never be a reliable substitute for human ingenuity and dexterity, and is passionate about involving workers of all different skill sets into the decision-making process.
“When we bring in new technology, we involve all of the staff in creating autonomous maintenance tasks,” she says. “It’s important the staff work closely with any new innovation in the factory, because they’ll be able to bring the most insight into how the technology will affect their role.”
“I’m an advocate of the Da Vinci’s ownership culture,” says Sarah. “If you think about work like it was your own business, you’re going to make better decisions. If you think it’s a good idea and would do it with your own money, then crack on.”
Sarah Black-Smith is the Head of Factory Operations for Siemens Digital Factory in Congleton. Sarah leads the manufacturing and logistics teams in the plant, responsible for delivering electrical products throughout the world. She lives in North Wales. Find out more about working at Siemens.