February 7, 2022
Scott Houghton
Head of Robotics & Automation
BCW Manufacturing


Joe Black (00:02):

I had a great conversation this week with Scott Houghton, the Head of Robotics and Automation at BCW. We talked about how robotics is changing the manufacturing industry and the transformative impact it's had on BCW. We also discussed the art of mass production, the impact of COVID and Brexit on the industry, how he measures success at BCW, and so much more. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. From Red-Fern Media, this is ReMake Manufacturing.

Joe Black (00:37):

My guest this week is Scott Houghton, Head of Robotics and Automation at BCW. Scott leads the company's adoption of automation and is a passionate advocate of the manufacturing sector in the UK. Scott has extensive experience across manufacturing and a deep knowledge of automated solutions, engineering solutions, process improvements, and technical design, to name just a few. Welcome, Scott.

Scott Houghton (00:59):

Hi Stewart. Thanks for having me.

Joe Black (01:02):

You're very welcome. So tell us, you specialise in robotics. Not everyone knows what that's really all about. So could you paint us a picture of the workshop at BCW?

Scott Houghton (01:10):

Yeah. So BCW is predominantly an automotive supplier, which means we make parts for companies like Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin, just to assemble the vehicles basically. So these parts are usually manufactured at high volume on what's called a CNC machine or a computer control machine. And my role really involves with coming up with a method to do this quickly, but repeatably to the quality standard required. So this often involves using robotics and automation.

Joe Black (01:40):

And what does it look like? I can imagine the workshop from Ironman. Is it anything like that?

Scott Houghton (01:45):

We're not quite there yet, but we do use some, some variants of new technology use quite a bit of virtual simulating for the technology to allow us to sort any concepts beforehand, before we get onto the shop floor and try and do it in the real world.

Joe Black (02:02):

And what was your route into the industry? How did you manage that? Were you always interested in robotics?

Scott Houghton (02:09):

Not quite. I mean, I always played about with different bits of technology replacing form screens and fixing batteries, that kind of thing, laptop batteries and whatnot. But I began my career as an apprentice, electrical apprentice, around about 10 years ago now. And I was initially going into be sort of an electrical maintenance apprentice. And then how we ran things at the company at the time was we sort did rotation around departments. So the second department I fell into was the applications department, which was all to do with new project work and new equipment. And I just seemed to settle really well, the working with gadgets, new technology and the new tasks involved with looking at something from a fresh pair of eyes really.

Joe Black (02:52):

It's a very traditional route into the industry. You had a mentor. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Scott Houghton (02:58):

Yeah, well, very lucky, really. So I dropped on with a very intelligent, a very patient guy, my mentor, Richard. And he'd give me a lot of time really. And I would say that a lot of my robotics knowledge has been learned more work based through my time spent with Richard than it was through the college route or through the apprenticeship route. So, I mean, in the first instance, he basically sort of gave me a robot for six months and the manual and sort of said, "There you go, you've got that little bit at the back of the workshop, make it do something interesting. Come back to if you've got any problems." So it were really good.

Joe Black (03:33):

And what was that like then, having that hands on experience?

Scott Houghton (03:35):

It just worked wonders. It developed in me that sort of problem solving capability. So it allowed me to sort of say, "Right, okay, what am I trying to achieve? How do I break it down to smaller problems and then whip my way through it?" And I could then sort of keep going back to Richard with the smaller breakdowns et cetera. "How do I do this little bit now?" And go and implement that, and then go back to him again with another little smaller bit and allowed that flow really.

Joe Black (04:00):

Absolutely. And you've bounced around from various roles and departments in BCW. Can you just give us a quick potted history of that?

Scott Houghton (04:08):

Yeah, so I was brought into BCW for my robotics knowledge. BCW was looking to start servicing their own internal projects. At the time of my joining they sort of got everything done externally with other companies. And yeah, so I was brought in for my robotics. Funnily enough at the time, I'd got a sort of six years experiencing in a particular robotic supplier and it was deemed for monetary reasons and whatnot that we would go with a competitor when I began my journey at ABB, so it was quite interesting that I had to sort of rewind a little bit and apply my existing knowledge to a new piece of equipment as a whole.

Scott Houghton (04:47):

So we sort of developed a few projects internally as part to that, and then went on to sort of head up that department, robotics division, and had a few guys working with myself as we took on more projects. And then over the years, I've sort of gone from working in that singular department to being more in the team of the whole company. So I sort of oversee all robotics and all sort of new work at BCW, which gives me a bit more of a control and hand in what route we take when we get new projects.

Joe Black (05:19):

You already mentioned the automotive clients that you have. Do you want to just tell us what problems do they typically have when they come to you and what do you solve for them?

Scott Houghton (05:28):

Yeah. So in automotive, your car components are generally quite highly toleranced, which means that the features that they ask for have got to be within a certain tolerance band, have got to be quite accurate. But also you've got to make a large volume of these to account for the UK and probably global industry of car manufacture. So you're talking in the region of thousands of these a week to meet the customer demand, but you've got to sort of guarantee that them thousands you're mass producing have all within a certain quality band. So it's finding that fine line between how quickly you can make these components, but what can you put into the process to make sure what you deliver is accurate and is correct? And that's a lot of the problems I essentially try and address with the systems that I install.

Joe Black (06:16):

And is that quite a lot of pressure on your shoulders then?

Scott Houghton (06:20):

It is, yeah, because that often means that I've got to suggest new pieces of equipment to maybe solve a new problem and really put a case forward to say, "This is the correct piece of equipment. This is the evidence that I've got to show that, and this is going to ultimately give us some comfort factor that we can relax a little bit knowing what we're making is correct."

Joe Black (06:39):

Absolutely. And how would you say the automotive sector is changing and how do those changes affect you at BCW?

Scott Houghton (06:46):

I would definitely say obviously with the impact of COVID, there's been a change over the past 12 to 18 months. If anything, I think in the UK industry, it's given us a bit of a kick to start embracing technology more and embracing new equipment. Traditionally, I think we've been sort of a bit old school in the fact that we sort of man things up. We have lots of manual labor, manual put power, and maybe a little bit scared of embracing the new technology. And I would think definitely beginning with BCW's journey and going forward, I would hope that that would spread to the greater industry in the UK to bring more automation robotics into the workplace. And rather than seeing that as a detraction from jobs, seeing that as progression within the industry to then provide more skill to operate this new equipment.

Joe Black (07:36):

So automation's really not something to be afraid of and robots are our friends?

Scott Houghton (07:40):

Definitely not. There's a predetermined idea in the UK that robots are here to take our jobs and we're all going to be homeless, because nobody can get any jobs. But it's a completely different idea really. What we want to be looking at is increasing the skill of these guys or ladies to allow them to work with the equipment, and rather than removing them from the industry, bringing them up so that they know how to use these robots. So they know to program, install, work with these robots, and ultimately that can only be beneficial to themselves and the global industry.

Joe Black (08:14):

Electrical cars are obviously the big thing that's coming up in the future. What do you think that looks like? What do you think is coming in and what's your role in the creation of that revolution?

Scott Houghton (08:23):

Yeah, it's quite interesting really. It's changed the mindset in manufacturing. So traditionally in an automotive manufacturer, you've got a lot of steel components, heavy metal components to give you that structure, that protection in a vehicle. But with the introduction of electrical vehicles, there's more of a sway on the weight of the vehicle itself because your drive mechanism has got a lot less torque than the traditional engine, you're looking at your vehicle being of a lot lighter weight. So I know when I joined BCW, they were going through a transitional period of implementing more aluminium manufacture. Aluminium is a much lighter piece of metal than steel, and definitely within the Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin sort of manufacturer that I've been experiencing, the sway is towards these lighter components that are designed for strength rather than just being solid lumps of metal. Because that then allows the vehicle itself to be a lot lighter, which means that you get a lot more drive and a lot more distance out of your battery power. So there's definitely been a conscious decision to implement lighter materials in the manufacture of vehicles.

Joe Black (09:29):

Right. So, I mean, if you were to give yourself a long term goal working with robotics and automation, what would you say that was, and where are you on the journey?

Scott Houghton (09:37):

I would say that I want to get to a point where everybody involved within robotics is extremely comfortable with them being in their environment. And that can fall down to your managers and the company owners that are buying the equipment that sort of still have a bit of skepticism on whether it's the right route to go. And then also the people on the shop floor who are using the equipment to then feel comfortable around it and not feel daunted, feel like they're going to be replaced, or feel like they're not qualified enough to use this kit. We need to be giving them the comfort factor that this is the right step forward.

Joe Black (10:11):

So it's trying to find the human side within that automation, isn't it?

Scott Houghton (10:15):

Definitely. There's not by a long shot should we remove the human element from manufacturing. There's always going to be a factor of human element and definitely required within manufacturing. There's plenty of things that humans can do that robots just aren't there yet. They can't do. And at the end of the day, you always going to need somebody to work with that equipment. Unfortunately, the robot doesn't work 24 hours a day, seven days a week without any interference, without anybody coming looking at it, doing minor repairs, keeping the equipment running, working hand in hand with it.

Joe Black (10:46):

It's all about that synthesis at the end of the day?

Scott Houghton (10:50):

Of course it is. Yeah, it is. Yeah.

Joe Black (10:51):

And mass production is at the center of everything you do there. What is the secret? What is the art of good mass production would you say?

Scott Houghton (10:58):

Repeatability, in a word. And that sort of means really that if you... People underestimate how many things they do without really thinking about it. And what I mean by that is how many times, if you're putting a component in somewhere, you might give it a little blow down with an air line or give it a tap with your little rubber mallet just to make it fit better. And that isn't directly transferable over to robotics. A robot will do exactly what it's told. It will put that square block in that square hole. Now if that square block's slightly too big, or the hole's slightly too small, then you're going to end up with some form of collision or some kind of error. And this is sort of the understanding that we've got to repeat the raw component. We've got repeat the equipment we use. Everything's got to be consistent. And in that manner, you can then have a reliable mass production of that then components.

Joe Black (11:47):

So let's make it concrete. Can you give us an example of project that you are especially proud of, something that you've really felt a sense of achievement from?

Scott Houghton (11:56):

Yeah, so as I said, when I first joined BCW, for one reason or another, we went down the competitor's robotic solution. So my history was in a company called FANUC Robotics, which were a global robotics company. And we sort of went over to the competitors being ABB robotics. So the general concept of robotics is pretty much the same, but the manner and the language in which you use differs obviously between supplier. So I was tasked with putting in quite a large production line upon joining BCW. And I basically sort of learned the kinks of that while installing this line and this was a big multiple robot cell with four machines per cell, two robots, conveyor belts, vision systems, various other little aspects of the system.

Scott Houghton (12:44):

And really it was a big learning curve. And I'll be honest, a lot of going backwards and forwards with the supplier, and going back as far with the ABB engineers to put this line in. And the good thing about that was we then had a second line, which was going to be a duplicate, and the amount of assistance I required on the duplicate significantly decreased because of the things I'd learned on the initial cell. So I was very happy with that. And that line now runs today problem free basically. The guys working with the equipment seem a lot happier. And obviously the guys who were looking at the numbers, getting things out the door, they're again, a lot happier.

Joe Black (13:19):

So it's worth all the blood, sweat, and tears at the beginning for the final result?

Scott Houghton (13:22):

It was definitely worth the effort. Yeah. Put in. Yeah. I learned a lot on that project, a lot that gave me the knowledge and I use today on a daily basis to put in the new equipment that I use now.

Joe Black (13:33):

Let's talk a little bit about the wider context and manufacturing itself. COVID, it's the problem that's haunted us all. How's it impacted your end of the industry?

Scott Houghton (13:43):

It's quite a funny one, really. I think there was this idea that it was going to plummet and that we were going to really struggle. People weren't going to be going anywhere. They weren't going to be spending money. They weren't going to be buying cars. And if anything, we saw the reverse of that. It's as if everybody thought we can't spend our money on holidays, so we're all going to get ourselves a new car. And the industry really seemed to bounce back really quickly. I was away for four or five weeks, initially when COVID first started. And I was straight back in the... I was amongst maybe just two or three people on the shop floor, but I was straight working on the next project, ready for the shop [inaudible 00:14:18] people coming back into work. There wasn't really a downward spiral that we expected.

Scott Houghton (14:24):

If anything, it's been an upward spiral in a sense that people started to embrace that technology a lot more and seeing where else in the company it can be used. Because I think the negative effect of COVID, of people being not on the work floor, people getting COVID and being away from the job for two to three weeks at a time if need required, it's definitely having an impact. And it's showing that that doesn't necessarily happen if you've got a robot there. If you've got one guy operating six or seven robotic systems, the chances of a COVID problem are significantly reduced because they're not working hand in hand with other people on the shop floor. So it has definitely been a drive upwards as opposed to downwards in the industry.

Joe Black (15:06):

Yeah. I mean, absolutely. Everybody's kind of always wanted robots and automation to kind of turn in that corner and maybe this is the time it's going to happen.

Scott Houghton (15:13):

I think so. Yeah.

Joe Black (15:14):

And compared to other countries as well, in terms of automation, how are we doing and what can we do to kind of keep up with them or surpass them?

Scott Houghton (15:23):

Yeah. I mean, at the minute, we're definitely behind on the rest of Europe in the manufacturing industry, when it comes to automated equipment. I believe there was a statistic that maybe two or three years ago that for every 70 people on the shop floor, there was one robot in the wider Europe, but for the UK, it was every 400 people to one robot. So there's a significant difference in the numerical figures there. And I think for us, we need to start looking at the training provided and how we give that on a more formal basis to the engineers coming up.

Scott Houghton (15:56):

As I said previously, I was very lucky that I had the mentor to show me the robotic side of things in industry. And if I haven't had that, I wouldn't be where I am today now because my electrical apprenticeship didn't cover any of the aspects required to do the robotics work. And I think it's definitely critical that industry starts looking at how we work with the training facilities, how we work with the colleges, the universities to come up with more time specific courses, come up with things that embrace more modern technology and work on that so that when people are coming out of the educational environment, they've got the skills needed to walk straight into these positions. They're not needing two or three years on the job to learn it before they start really making headway themselves.

Joe Black (16:42):

Yeah, absolutely. And so if you could take a message to government, for example, what would you be asking them for?

Scott Houghton (16:49):

I would be looking at definitely giving more funding to the training factor of things, the colleges, the universities, to purchase the equipment required. The cost of this equipment, robotics, new technologies, has significantly dropped in recent years, just because of the cost of manufacture has significantly dropped, the cost of building and making the components required has become more commonplace. So I think that we need to start investing more money into the colleges to buy a robot, create these courses. We need to be supporting it on a more public forum. We need to be speaking to the educational secretaries and whatnot, and saying, "How do we create these courses so that people can be trained where required."

Joe Black (17:32):

Absolutely. And then the other big problem that we're facing at the moment obviously is the after effects of Brexit. No matter how you stand on that issue, it's shaken things up. What's that done for you and what's the future looking like?

Scott Houghton (17:43):

We've not necessarily see a downward spiral in different nationalities within the industry. We've still got many employees of various nationalities, so we're not seeing a direct impact at the moment. And I can hope that's only a positive thing. Again, it may push a further draft to the robotics side of things, if we start seeing the external assistance and labor coming in from abroad. But at the moment, we're still seeing a comfortable variation between nationalities within the industry. So fingers crossed it shouldn't affect us too negatively at the moment.

Joe Black (18:18):

It sounds like you are sort of negotiating all those troubled waters quite well. And I guess that's down to the experience you got us an apprentice and everything you've done within BCW.

Scott Houghton (18:29):

Yeah. I'm trying. We've got to look at supporting people going forward to provide the best environment for the industry. And be it technology and be it external labor and assistance through different people coming from a abroad, we've got to support all factors because we all want the same goal, to have a comfortable working environment that creates the best productivity.

Joe Black (18:54):

If you could pick only one metric for your business to improve over time, what metric would have the greatest and most sustainable impact on the growth of your business?

Scott Houghton (19:03):

I would say that we would have to look at the inclusion of other people within the business and the understanding around robotics and automation. As I said previously, the idea in robotics is still a little bit sort of sitting on the fence really within the UK. There are companies that are embrace it, but it's still a path towards getting the full UK to embrace robotics as a whole. And we've only going to be able to do that through people. So we've got to include everybody that the robotics effects within the industry in the initial decisions to implement it within a company, and explain to them individuals how this affects them directly. How will this affect your job? Are you going to have to have new training and new skills learned to be able to work with the equipment? Is your working day going to change because of this new piece of equipment? And that's the understanding we've got to instill it in the workforce really.

Joe Black (19:57):

Absolutely. Imagine a future where the UK was leading the world, maybe in the next five to 10 years, in that parallel universe what do you think the manufacturing industry has done to get us to that prime position?

Scott Houghton (20:09):

Again, and I don't like to repeat myself too much, but it's definitely the embracing of the technology within the workforce. I would say that in the next sort three to five years, any large manufacturing company that hasn't got some form of robotics or automation present and is still relying on heavy manpower is going to struggle. We've seen this with the pandemic, we've seen this with COVID, I'm sure in the future there are going to be other things that come up that can impact people's day to day lives on whether they can get to and from work repeatably. And having this other piece of technology is going to allow us to continue manufacture, continue production without being effected too drastically by these aspects.

Scott Houghton (20:52):

We've definitely got to embrace the technology, embrace the equipment and start investing in it. Investing in the skill level, investing in the equipment itself, and allowing our engineers that are coming up through the ranks to be prepared for the new technological influx. I sort of compare it to the industrial revolution in a sense that we're now in the UK going through a technological revolution. As during the industrial revolution, the skills required to operate the new farms and machinery had to be taught and had to be given to the workforce and provided. And again, we're at the same point now where we've got to provide them skills to the workforce, we've got to invest in the equipment, and that would allow us five years in the future to be on par or if not leading manufacturing on a global market. The UK has always historically been very successful in the manufacturing environment and we have it in us to do it again if we embrace the way that the global market is going technologically wise.

Joe Black (21:51):

Absolutely. So we'll end this show in the same way we do every week by asking you to tell us if there's one invention that was never manufactured, your life would become unbearable. What's the one invention that you can't live without?

Scott Houghton (22:04):

Well, it's a little bit cliche for my generation, but I've got to say the mobile phone, and I mean this not because of checking football scores or taking pictures of my evening meal, but just the access in your hand to the wider internet. So many times on a day to day occurrence, I'm thinking, "Oh, I need to ask the internet a question. I need to look [inaudible 00:22:25]." Generally, if you've got a problem, somebody else has had that problem before you, and they figured it out, or at least they debated how to figure it out. And being able to just jump on your mobile phone, take a quick picture of what you're working on, go and jump on a forum [inaudible 00:22:36], ask Google. It just makes your day to day running so much easier. So yeah, I've got to say the introduction of having a handheld gadget to the world makes things a lot more productive.

Joe Black (22:47):

It is hard to imagine life before and without it now, isn't it? Thanks so much. All it leaves me to do is to just say thanks for such an insightful chat about robotics and automation, Scott Houghton. Subscribe to this podcast in all the usual places, Apple Podcast, Spotify, Amazon, and Google Music. Thanks for listening to this edition of ReMake Manufacturing. I'm your host, Joe Black, see you next time.