The automation expert

Adaptability, variety and often complicated problem-solving keeps Gavin John, Automation and Digital Project Engineer at ARBURG Ltd, inspired in his work. Business conditions and greater understanding mean that automation enquiries are running high.

Employee profile: Gavin John

There are well-documented skills and employment gaps in manufacturing. Some of this problem can be alleviated with more automation, especially for operations that require simple lifting and placing – while robots also offer reliability, accuracy, and “lights out” work.  ARBURG customers are showing more interest than ever in robots, Gavin says, but it can be a long, multi-layered process. “Of course, you have to assess that a robot is a viable solution for the task, and increasingly we now produce a full productivity and ROI report that shows them the payback based on increased piece rate and constant running,” he says.

Gavin’s strong interest in automation started early. His first job was an apprenticeship at ARBURG Ltd customer in South Wales in 2008. The company were already using some automation and Gavin moved into a maintenance engineer job. He combined the apprenticeship while completing a BSc (Hons) degree in electrical and electronic engineering at the (now) South Wales University. By now, it was clear the ARBURG offered a career where these specific skills would be valued. He didn’t have to wait long to join ARBURG – straight after just completing the engineering degree he was offered the job as service engineer. Starting there in 2015 and progressing to senior service engineer, Gavin honed his interest in automation systems for moulding, training on the MULTILIFT – ARBURG’s proprietary robot system – and cartesian robots. His predecessor started a new “turnkey” and automation division, and when he left ARBURG, Gavin stepped into the vacant role.

Old “fear” of automation is changing, with better communication

Automation enquiries are strong in 2023. Previously, some companies feared the costs and barriers of automation, but this is changing. “When you work out the return on investment, operator savings, and machine utilization, people are starting to come around to it,” Gavin says. “The majority of the projects that I've assessed have probably got the same three-to-five-year payback. A project that is running for the next eight or 10 years, with a five-year payback, the second half five-year term is profitable – and we can show that better now.”

Covid has accelerated the change. As some machine operators did not return to work, and with recovery in the moulding sector, robots are seen as a labour solution. Interplas, the trade show that just took place, ARBURG Ltd. and other shows also show off a lot more automation as standard, rather than a bolt-on.

People understand the flexibility of a robot cell better now, too, says Gavin. “Let's say for instance, they’re running that machine 60% of the time for the automated job, before people would think that’s 40% of dead time, but you can use the 40% capacity. You can turn the automation off and just run your moulding machine manually. I think many people don’t see that’s possible.”

For trends and popular applications at the moment, Gavin says pick & place applications are always popular, and this is where the MULTILIFT excels. “There is a shift towards 6-axis robots, I think that’s because they are easier to programme and control now. The 6-axis allows you to feed from the side and above, while MULTILIFT only gives access from above – but perhaps people are still scared by the perceived complexity of a 6-axis.”

Working for ARBURG, and work life balance

ARBURG gives its people exposure to a lot of new technology, Gavin says. The variety comes from engineering requirements and the diverse sectors; combine the two and no two days are the same. “We work in many sectors – automotive, medical, the games industry, standard trade moulders, R&D departments. It continues to surprise me how many different products can be produced, also the technicality of the applications and materials used,” Gavin says. “On material variety, we really need to know if the surface is textured or flat, to apply the robot correctly. But the point is every day is a challenge: today I could be working on medical, tomorrow on an automotive part, and the day after that I could be working on a toy application. And meanwhile the robot and control systems can change.”

Training is very thorough at ARBURG. Gavin has calculated he has spent over seven months training in Lossburg, Germany in the last eight years. Now he is learning to operate SolidWorks, an advanced CAD package, that helps with planning robot projects to understand product geometry.

Outside work – when there’s time, Gain adds – he owns a black Labrador, Penny, and enjoys walking in the Brecon Beacons, or its official name Bannau Brycheiniog – and the beaches near Cardiff such as Porthcawl and Barry. Gavin has owned dogs all his life and taking a long walk with Penny in the hills near the famous Rhondda Valley is where he can destress and rebalance. Gavin has been married for just over a year.

Looking forward Gavin wants to grow ARBURG’s automation division. “Attitudes are changing, and our ROI illustrations are helping. There could be room for several people specialising, especially with the potential of the Irish market – automation here is culturally normal, in the high value, precision medical industry, so we can develop that strongly.”

He adds, “I'm enjoying life at ARBURG, I always have. You are looked after. The training is excellent and you are constantly upskilled.”