For the agritech sector, the capability to scale solutions is vital and will be even more so as the industry expands. This requires reliability of both hardware and software alongside proven production and manufacturing methodologies which can speed up and remove complexity of construction and maintenance across the sector.
We were very grateful to Bob Waterson, Managing Director of Greenfold Systems Ltd, for joining us to talk more about this theme. He discusses the importance of modularity in design and the benefits this can bring not only for the technology itself, but the wider manufacturing supply chain.
Q) At Greenfold Systems you specialise in providing flexible contract manufacturing services. Can you tell us a bit about the work you do and the key markets you address?
When we set up Greenfold Systems Limited (GSL), we had to decide if we wanted to become just another subcontractor that focused on one commodity and if yes, then what should that commodity be. For example, sheet metal fabrication or cable assembly. It quickly became clear to us that this market was already saturated and therefore we had to find customers and markets where a differentiated approach of doing things that others can't do, won't do, and/or don't do would set us apart.
That has led to us doing things where size is a challenge: either because it's too big or too small; or too heavy or even too light. Our approach essentially can be wrapped up into a phrase of 'customers should be good at what they're good at, and leave the rest to us!’
“A differentiated approach of doing things that others can't do, won't do, and/or don't do would set us apart.”
As such, GSL manufactures things like the sides and roofs of double decker buses while in the same breath we can assemble a wristband golf product. How many businesses do you know who can do that spread of diverse engineering? We are heavily involved in the transport sector where we believe irrespective of political alliances, each government in turn will have to invest in railways, roads and trams.
Technology means that rolling stock, trams and buses built decades ago now need things like WiFi upgrades, security/CCTV coverage, environmentally friendly lighting systems, etc and we have positioned our services to provide that. As such, we have sheet metal fabrication and cable assembly alongside services like panel wiring, harnessing, product assembly, system configuration, kitting out and installation services. That's the GSL differentiator.
Q) What have been the major challenges facing the manufacturing sector by the COVID-19 pandemic?
The global pandemic has meant that our company and our sector have had to address the external and internal risks created by COVID-19. The impact has been profound in that investment in products and services from OEMs has essentially stopped with a jolt. Consequently, companies and sectors are being consolidated and rationalising in a way we have not seen before in our lifetime.
The government has intervened and manufacturing has needed, and will continue to need, schemes in job retention and enterprise support. A great many jobs and skills will be lost as we enter a recession, which seems inevitable, and the challenge of survival will unquestionably come before growth ambitions for all involved in manufacturing.
On a more optimistic note, it has been interesting to see a customer base emerging that perhaps on the face of it wouldn’t traditionally be deemed as 'essential work'. For example, printing and packaging companies are aligned to the food industry and needed to keep running. Same with maintenance companies which are required to keep plant and equipment running. There's a number of examples of these sectors actually being stronger due to the pandemic.
Q) In your organisation, what impacts of the pandemic have you felt most acutely?
We are a non-union company and our staff relations are very close. I feel every bit of pain that my staff feel and the need to furlough staff positions has been very difficult. I see the impact on our people who are still working and the measures we have had to take to ensure safe working and it's a difficult time for them all.
Q) What do you consider to be the sectors that present greatest opportunity for your business and those for the sector more broadly?
Technology remains a driver as do the sectors which are less affected by the pandemic such as medical, food and drink. Also, areas of transport are already looking at new ways of doing more, quicker and with greater efficiency. That will roll out into a broader selection of markets and all will recover in time, but this could be a longer haul. For us, therefore, the exciting technology of vertical farming providing food and using technology that saves time, money and space is a wonderful concept.
Q) You have been working with IGS for a year now. Considering IGS’ modular design approach, does that improve efficiencies in assembly and manufacture for an organisation like Greenfold? If so, how?
The IGS design philosophy completely complements the ethos of ‘people being good at what they're good at’. The technical team at IGS has created an environment where a specialist assembly manufacturer with a competitive cost, such as we have, can have excellent repetitive processes where the outputs are constant. Continuous testing ensures a fault free product but ultimately it is the philosophy of built-in quality from the early design to the final test that really ensures the product is assembled to the highest standard. The better the design, the easier our job is, and that is what our experience is with IGS.
“The better the design, the easier our job is, and that is what our experience is with IGS.”
Q) Do you consider there to be a greater shift towards this type of modular design approach that will benefit manufacturing in the future? What is your experience in this area?
Building blocks, and small building blocks at that, keep things simple. The logic of creating modular repeatable design in the componentry has meant improved costs through cheaper component processing costs and direct and indirect cost savings.
The modular design of the product means less manufacturing engineering and less complication. Keeping things simple lends itself to efficiency. The diversified approach from GSL means that IGS has a supply chain partner who can manage a raft of different elements of the product. This again saves cost and cuts down on non-value activity.
“The modular design of the product means less manufacturing engineering and less complication.”
Q) Have you introduced new machines or methods that are more specific to supplying a business like ours?
The size challenge of the trays, for example, is not something many companies can process so we have used our manufacturing engineering experience to come up with safe methods for handling that, which also improves efficiency. The principles are not unique but there's no other product like the IGS vertical farm and in that regard, we are certainly pushing new boundaries.