Few would think of Ireland as a manufacturing powerhouse, but the country produces a lot more than many people realise. And a lot more than food, too.
Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures indicate the country exported €162 billion worth of goods in 2020, and had large trade surpluses with the United States, Belgium and Germany. Although food is the country’s best-known goods export, the single largest group of exports was chemicals and related products, followed by machinery and transport equipment, and miscellaneous manufactured articles.
Indeed, statistics published by AIB indicate that the sector is growing: according to the bank’s Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), published on 1 February, manufacturing activity picked up to 59.4 in January, with anything above 50 indicating a rise in activity, rising from a nine-month low of 58.3. The sector remains at an historically elevated level, the PMI found.
A new initiative in Dundalk, spearheaded by the Chief Executive of Louth and Meath Education and Training Board (LMETB) seeks to put manufacturing at the centre of society, with advanced training and the development of high-tech techniques.
The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centre of Excellence (AMTCE) in Dundalk aims to re-skill and up-skill students to use the new emerging technologies used in ‘industry 4.0’, as well as enabling them to develop new careers in advanced manufacturing through apprenticeships and traineeships.
AMTCE’s Technical Director, Dr Michael McGrath, said manufacturing’s contribution to the economy was significant, accounting for 260,000 direct jobs and supporting a further 200,000, and amounting to a third of GDP.
“85 per cent of those are outside of Dublin too, so it is really important to the rural economy. In some counties, including Cavan and Monaghan it represents one in four private sector jobs,” he said.
As a training centre, AMTCE wants to not only develop the sector, but also to prove that manufacturing is far from yesterday’s business. Doing this has required significant investment in technology, as today the sector is not about ‘banging tin’.
Martin O’Brien, Chief Executive of Louth and Meath Education and Training Board (LMETB), said that longstanding prejudices will need to be overcome, and that by demonstrating the high-tech and high-skill nature of manufacturing AMTCE hopes to show the viability of the sector in terms of creating well-paid jobs.
“One of the key issues we have in Ireland is apprenticeships and traineeships. The flight toward third-level education, and the flight towards third-level degrees that may not meet the needs of students, is a real issue,” he said.
Indeed, degrees as shortlisting for jobs have had a negative effect on both education and industry, with students chasing expensive and time-consuming certification that is often unrelated to the job market.
AMTCE’s strategy is to propose technical education as a viable alternative by going into schools to demonstrate innovations, including ones that have captured something of the current cultural moment such as ‘maker spaces’ to demonstrating technologies including robotics and 3D printing.
“We have a maker space where students will engage with advanced manufacturing, and then go back to school and ask thought-provoking questions,” said O’ Brien.
Technologies being deployed include eighteen robotic education cells, 60 computer-aided design (CAD) stations, four ‘cobot’ collaborative robot cells, and seven robotic welding cells, as well as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). AMTCE offers level five and six courses in robotic processes, cobotics, additive manufacturing (3D printing), the industrial internet of things (IIoT), CAD/CAM, industrial control, cybersecurity, process optimisation (Lean 6 Sigma), biopharma, and food processing, amongst other areas.
AMTCE’s location is part of the mix, too, lying on the Dublin-Belfast corridor, with easy access to the entire country.
The centre currently under construction is supported by SOLAS and Enterprise Ireland and is due to open at the end of this year, but AMTCE is already up and running with online and off-site training commencing in August 2021.
Location also matters in another way, and O’Brien said that gearing-up for the future of manufacturing could help to combat our geographic isolation.
“We really have an opportunity to make Ireland the workshop of the world, drive up exports and proof industry against future global shocks . We’re on the periphery of Europe, and transport costs are against us, so we need to get into the high-value areas,” he said.
O’Brien said an example was in medical device manufacture.
“We’ve all seen 3D printers, but we’re moving into the space of the 3D printing process making stents for heart operations: high-value and high precision items,” he said.
McGrath said that personalisation and low volume, high value items were of growing importance.
“In industry 4.0, manufacturing is underpinned by a lot of different technology, and one of the key tenets is moving from high volume, low mix to low volume, high mix.
“In the very near future you will be taking an MRI scan of a knee joint, taking that data and 3D printing a custom knee joint that will fit like a glove,” he said.
AMTCE has also installed an ‘industry 4.0’ modular production line that can handle packing, filling, material-handling and inspection.
“Each module is plug and play so you can reconfigure it however you want to operate it. It comes with a software stack that allows you to train people on how to operate it,” said O’Brien.
This kind of practical education is key: “You train pilots in simulators, but you don’t qualify them until they can demonstrate they can land a real plane,” O’Brien said.
The line also has the ability to collect statistics using industry standard protocols and public data to the cloud, where it can be manipulated using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools.
“The students will see how you use data to run a factory and see the advantage of these technologies within a modern manufacturing environment,” he said.
It is not just students whose attention AMTCE is seeking, though. McGrath said industry itself needed to be shown how investment in training and technology had a transformative potential.
“We also need to get the managers in to showcase the latest technologies and what they can do, so they can purchase the equipment themselves,” he said.
Indeed, multinationals have already moved to so-called ‘level five’ automation, meaning high-end jobs in manufacturing through greater automation (a recent US McKinsey survey indicated manufacturing sector jobs were not in decline, but that the job profile was changing). Domestic manufacturers, then, would benefit from similar innovation and investment.
Indeed, this was part of AMTCE’s genesis, said O’Brien. “A key feature of industry 4.0 technology adoption will be its regular cadence of change. To ensure that the AMTCE remains at the cutting edge of technology development and adoption the ATMCE has recently signed an MOU with the Irish Manufacturing Research Centre (IMR) to ensure that Centre has access the latest technology market intelligence underpinned by IMR’s applied industrial research activities with leading Irish companies. This valuable collaboration between the two organisations allows the AMTCE rapidly respond to evolving advanced manufacturing training needs driven by new technology deployments and adoption within the Irish manufacturing sector,” he said.
Further information on the AMTCE and courses it offers can be found on https://www.amtce.ie