Taking the leap
Digital Bulletin caught up with Novotek’s George Walker to talk over the benefits and challenges of adopting industrial automation technologies.
Hi George. First of all, can you give us some background on your career and your position at Novotek?
I’m the MD of Novotek in the UK & Ireland and I have over 20 years of experience within process automation control and administration. I am from a technical background and have worked in several roles in the industry in years gone by.
In September 2017, I joined Novotek following an acquisition. They acquired a company called Kercco Automation, where I was one of the owners. I was retained in my role to progress and develop the business over the next few years as we embarked upon creating the digital solutions that are becoming more readily available.
When it comes to Novotek’s customers, what are their main drivers for wanting to adopt automation?
It varies. One thing that we see is that the businesses are often a little reticent to make the leap. If something has worked for 25 years, they are not so open in many cases to change that. We’re having to make the approach to the customers to try and educate them as to why they should implement the technology and some of the gains that can be driven by implementation. They’re not coming to us so much, we’re having to go and sell the story.
For example, we’re talking to a steel company and we’re looking at different strands of technology that they could implement. We’re using some examples that us and GE have from past experiences, and those use cases have value propositions attached to them. We can confidently make claims that if they implement this type of technology, it will lead to a certain amount of gain. We’re showing that with our technology and domain expertise, we have the ability to drive top-line growth, savings and bottom-line growth.
What do you feel are the main barriers that put companies off adopting automation strategies?
We hear consistently from the economic institutions, think tanks and the government that we have a productivity issue in the UK. We still see businesses being a little slow to adoption, whether it’s hyperautomation technologies, industrial IoT or other Industry 4.0 technologies – whatever it is, we’re seeing that customers don’t want to be the first. They want to be version 2.0 rather than version 1.0.
There are a number of answers back to them. We’re able to boldly make claims from previous deployments, that’s the first one. The second point is that we can present back to the customer that if they don’t change, if they don’t modify their business processes, they could be left behind.
If the UK & Ireland wants to retain its position of being a key technology player in this space, we need companies to start adopting and adapting very quickly.
Employees may worry that automation technology could impact jobs. For those companies adopting, how should they go about communicating their plans?
A key aspect of any digital transformation is to get a consensus of buy-in from the employees. It has to be that way.
The first question that customers are asking is ‘Where do we start?’. They might have invested in automation for 20 years or more, they might have modernised PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), they might have SCADA systems, they might have large data repositories sitting on a big, expensive data server – but what do they actually do with that? How do they uncover the opportunities for growth?
At that point, that’s when the executives should be bringing in the middle managers and the employees because those people understand the processes and how the business actually operates. They will then quickly become a part of the team implementing the technology to make improvements. In many successful cases, we’re seeing that that type of leadership approach starts to build a little bit of competition among employees. Within their part of the business, they want to identify how they can make things a little better.
For companies communicating that message to its employers, it becomes much simpler. They say that the company will grow, it will make more money, it will expand operations into new territories through this technology – and that the workers are going to be a part of it rather than being separated from it by losing their jobs. Maybe the roles will change and adapt, but it doesn’t mean the roles will disappear.
In this area in particular, is there a discernible skills gap? Is your business struggling to find the right people?
Yes, certainly. We need to make sure that industry links with academia, and that students are leaving university properly educated and armed with the skills to take into industry. Industry can’t take them in at 21 and 22 and have to mould them to the way they work. We need academia and industry to work better together. Businesses like ours can play an integral part in helping to do that.
We also don’t see enough students partaking in the types of courses that we’re looking for. A big driver for me personally is that I’m trying to attract more women into these roles. That can help cure this problem.
How do you think emerging technologies like artificial intelligence are changing the market that you’re working in?
To be honest, quite slowly. We’re probably seeing more AR (augmented reality) opportunities at the moment, for obvious reasons. It can be integrated simply into automation systems like SCADA. For example, if an alert or alarm is created, you can implement augmented reality and show the operator what the procedure should be to recover and bring the plant back to a normal state. AR is undoubtedly the most welcome and easily received of the new technologies.
Artificial intelligence is growing and machine learning is growing. Machine learning is going to be the biggest disruptor in my mind, going forward. However, we’re still seeing challenges in this area. Plants don’t have everything connected and they don’t have the data stored in a manner where they can extract maximum value using AI and machine learning. That will come once customers figure out how they will structure and model their data.
Virtual reality is also going to grow. You see large OEM (original equipment manufacturing) companies with quite an open mind to implementing this technology and it’s working well, but we don’t see it being huge in the next few years. I think that will have the slowest adoption.
Could you tell us about the GE and PTC partnerships that you have?
In the UK & Ireland, our primary partner is GE. At Kercco Automation, we pretty much had 95% or more of our business routed via GE. In my mind, I wanted Kercco to be an extension of GE. Customers shouldn’t be able to notice the difference between speaking with a GE representative or us. That was very successful for us for 14 years.
We then sold the business to Novotek, which has now established relationships with people like PTC and others. At this point in time, however, the GE partnership delivers 90% of our revenues. It is our number one partner.
The PTC partnership is new to us in the UK & Ireland but it’s not so new to the group as a whole. Novotek Group has quite an established relationship with PTC and several different layers. PTC acquired a company called Kepware, and Kepware provides the industrial connectivity layer and drivers that allow you to connect your islands of automation into a single repository. Novotek has had a relationship with the Kepware part of the business for many, many years.
The group then evolved that relationship into becoming a PTC partner, particularly around Thingworx components. We are promoting Thingworx solutions in many instances, and like I described, we are seeing many opportunities in the pipeline involving augmented reality that we’re starting to develop and collaborate with PTC on.
In terms of automation, do you think there are any challenges that are unique to the UK & Ireland territory?
It’s a very interesting question. Look at the different regions in the UK and Ireland; in Scotland for example, the main industries are food & beverage and oil & gas. Then you look at the north of England and it’s very much food & beverage, then in the Midlands there’s an automotive and engineering presence, and then in the south of England they have OEM. Ireland also has a strong life sciences business.
We are quite unique in that sense, by having such a breadth of different industries. That makes it very interesting for us as a business. There are peaks and troughs in different industries, particularly in oil and gas, but we can adapt the business strategy as those challenges present. That would be the unique part for the UK and Ireland, the vast array of different vertical markets available to us.