Weighing up the options: embrace the niche or automate?

Callaghan Innovation national technology network manager for advanced materials, Kirsten Edgar, explains why automation could be a double-edged sword for New Zealand companies.

At the recent Advanced Composites Innovation Conference in Melbourne I gained a fascinating insight into international trends and emerging technologies that could impact on New Zealand companies – particularly composite companies in our marine or aerospace HVMS sectors.

Leslie Jay Cohen, Senior Vice President of HITCO Carbon Composites was the keynote speaker. HITCO is a US-based supplier of composite solutions, mainly to the aerospace and defence industries. About 20 years ago the company had to make some hard choices in order to remain competitive and grow. Centrally, they chose not to emigrate, i.e. move to a country offering cheap labour – Leslie’s comment was that employing inexpensive but unmotivated people ends up being incredibly expensive in the long run!  Their other option was to automate, a decision which has led to increased success and market share for the company.

Leslie Jay Cohen

Dr Leslie Jay Cohen

Leslie shared several lessons that HITCO had learned during this change.  He talked in particular about the importance of getting your processes right, mainly focusing on inventory processes, and of empowering your people – if they do not feel that they can hit the ‘stop’ button on your automated production line because the product is not up to specification, automation will be of no benefit.

As interesting as these lessons were, the key question in my mind was this: are New Zealand composites manufacturing companies going to be faced with this same choice?

Having had discussions about the potential impact of automation on New Zealand advanced materials companies with a number of people previously, my thoughts are that automation could be a double-edged sword for our companies.  If they don’t automate, there is the chance that they will be priced out by larger (automated) international competitors.  However, if they do automate, they risk losing a key advantage that New Zealand companies in this space can offer: nimbleness (or as a colleague put it, the ability to offer “fast, flexible and few” manufacturing).

Composite aero automation.jpg

Goodrich Aerostructure: automated fiber placement machine

Given the range of composites, and materials-based companies in New Zealand (in terms of size and focus), no single conclusion on this topic will fit all those that might be affected.  I would instead suggest that if you are not already talking about this balancing act internally, it might be good to start the conversation. Callaghan Innovation provides connection to leading experts across a range of fields, so if this is a conversation your business is starting to have, and would like input from those with experience, get in touch with me:

kirsten.edgar@callaghaninnovation.govt.nz

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About Callaghan Innovation

Business. Technology. Success.
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