Automation specialist goes from strength to strength

by Paul Fanning

Machine building specialist DesignPro Automation of Limerick has gone from strength to strength and now looks set to go global.

Machine building specialist DesignPro Automation of Limerick has gone from strength to strength and now looks set to go global.

There are not many hotter topics in manufacturing now than automation. The ever-increasing ability of technology to supplement and replace human roles in the workplace is the subject of any number of opinion pieces and an apparently endless source of speculation.

In the manufacturing and engineering spaces however, automation is already an everyday reality in many leading firms and its already widespread use is only set to expand. An Irish company at the forefront of this revolution is Limerick-based machine builder DesignPro Automation.

The company was founded in 2004 by Paul Collins, whose background in toolmaking and design engineering with a number of blue-chip multinationals gave him the expertise and the connections to launch the firm alongside Patrick Downes, who remains its engineering manager.

Most of the company’s clients at that point were in the automotive and medical device industry, but it also worked in the pharmaceutical industry and provided general mechanical engineering solutions for manufacturing lines in the cosmetics industry.

By 2010, the company had grown to six employees and moved into its first substantial premises of 11,000 ft². This change reflected its move from a consulting capacity to one where it designed and built its own manufacturing solutions. From 2010-2015 the company grew exponentially, so it had 25 employees and moved to its current premises in Rathkeale, Limerick, which at that point represented a 32,000 ft² facility.

The company’s most rapid period of growth took place between 2015 and 2017 and was based on work with a number of key clients in the automotive sector and involved undertaking a number of repeat builds for them not only in their Irish plants, but also for their manufacturing facilities in China and the USA.

Redmond McDonnell, the recently-appointed CEO of DesignPro Automation points out, such repeat builds are advantageous for the company. “Repeat builds are the utopia for a machine builder,” he says, “since the there is less upfront R&D and design time and it allows us to utilise the R&D done in the initial design to simply repeat a number of solutions. We built machines for companies’ facilities in Ireland initially and, once we were done with the initial design and build, repeat builds would be needed for three or four times the number of machines in their other facilities.” The upshot of this was that the company enjoyed a five-fold increase in revenue during this period, growing to 50 employees by 2017.

Since 2017, the medical device industry has become a more significant part of the customer base and DesignPro has a number of customers who are blue-chip medical device companies. Says McDonnell: “It’s really a 50:50 split now between automotive and medical devices for bespoke engineering solutions. Separate to that, in a number of different sectors we are building robotic tending solutions that take operators out of the line and replaces them with robots. That sort of thing is sector-agnostic. It doesn’t require any sector-specific technology to take operators out and replace them with robots.”

According to McDonnell, DesignPro Automation’s success is rooted in “the quality of our concepts and our mechanical design team”. These have allowed it to develop truly innovative solutions such as those it has to install active alignment camera systems for the automotive industry, which involve automating the process of aligning a camera lens and sensor.

Another factor is the company’s readiness to embrace and work with the latest technologies. This is in part achieved thanks to the company’s R&D department, which sits in a 4,000 ft² facility and works on developing proof of concept work for customers. This might be a machine build where the company identifies risk areas and will advise the client that, rather than risk a larger spend and time at the Debug stage, they should make a smaller investment up front to de-risk that area before progressing to full build. Inevitably, this process means exploring all the available technologies. “Through that process, we look at new technologies, what’s available in the market,” says McDonnell. “A lot of research goes into our bespoke machines that gets filtered through research and development first.”

Strategic partnerships are another way in which DesignPro Automation ensures it retains a key technological advantage. Its most significant is with robotics giant Kuka and started in early 2016 and has, in McDonnell’s words “gone from strength to strength”.

To date, the company has installed more than 40 Kuka robots in its custom-built machines, ranging from 3kg up to 30kg payloads. Robots such as the KR3 and KR6 are an ideal fit for the types of industries and applications it works with. These applications can include high-speed, high-precision pick and place operations, general feeding, smart manipulation of product orientation and also end of arm tooling. It has also utilised collaborative based robots to trial and test live medical applications.

In fact, the phenomenal growth in the area of robotics has led to the development of its own robotics division in September 2018 – DesignPro Robotics. Its team is trained and highly experienced in the integration of robots across a wide variety of applications including machine tending, product transfer, assembly, testing, vision systems, high speed pick and place, simulation and end-of-arm tooling.

McDonnell says: “The partnership works very well with Kuka, with projects being fed both ways depending on who the initial inquiry comes into. Projects with Kuka can include retrofitting a robot to an existing manufacturing line to remove the need for an operator or implementing a full-line solution. It’s often a mixture of the two.”

Links with academia also form a part of the company’s technological strategy. It is already involved in funded projects that came via the universities and Enterprise Ireland, which has been a great support to us. One of these is in the medical field working closely with UL and UCD on colonoscopy and endoscopy. The company also participates in the Co-Operative Education Scheme and takes students on placements from the universities every year.

Incidentally, this involvement also has benefits in terms of recruitment. According to McDonnell: “It’s a very challenging environment for recruiting engineers, so we do try and do as much as possible to keep our links with local universities in order to do that. Kuka is also ingrained in our local university, which helps very much because it means we have automation engineers coming through who are already trained on the Kuka platform. Separate to that we like to offer staff an R&D-focused environment rather than a process-driven environment. That means that any graduate coming to us is very much hands-on from day one.”

These routes to innovation combine to foster a high level of technological diversity and expertise. An example of this can be seen in DesignPro Automation’s innovative use of vision systems and virtual reality (VR) technology. “We work very closely and have a lot of expertise in vision systems,” says McDonnell. “VR technology is another new space we’re working heavily in. In some cases we’re turning our design concepts of machines into a VR reality before we build in order to de-risk the building process and ensure it will work. We also are exploring using it for servicing our machines. We’re investing in technology where the operators of the machines can wear the glasses and our service team can service the machine remotely which is cost effective for both DesignPro and our customers.”

In order to offset the possibility of a global slowdown, DesignPro Automation is preparing itself through diversification and cost controls. “it’s about making sure we’re positioned in the right markets and with the right resources,” McDonnell says.

For the moment, however, the market remains buoyant. He says: “There’s a lot of capital being spent on automation of what are currently manual lines.” And, even if there is a slowdown, McDonnell holds the view that demand for automation will continue to grow.

“I do think that there will continue to be a lot of investment in automation going forward,” he asserts. “It will slow at a point, but there will still be a base level that will allow companies like ours to perform at a good level. The fact is that people will continue to invest in Industry 4.0 because the return on investment in automation is too good for them not to. The payback period is quite short compared to having to pay for a salary for an operator.”

Another approach DesignPro Automation is taking is in diversifying its offering to include more modular solutions that can be purchased ‘off-the-shelf’ rather than the bespoke solutions it currently offers. As McDonnell points out, this has advantages both for customers and for the company itself.

“Building bespoke solutions is a fairly reactive way of doing things,” he points out. “Since it means waiting for a customer to come to you and you building a solution to suit their needs. We want to flip that on its head such that a large proportion of our business becomes building modular solutions that a customer can take off the shelf. That means that the customer can pick and choose the solution they need without the development costs required by a bespoke system and it means we can control margin much better and take out uncertainty and risk. It also means we can turnaround solutions much quicker and we can grow on a much larger scale.”

Looking to the future, DesignPro Automation has ambitions on a global scale, with the possibility of opening offices abroad to service and support the overseas installations it currently has and encourage the growth of future ones. Says McDonnell: “We have a large number of enquiries with multinational companies that originated in Ireland. This has put us on the approved supplier list for their other sites, which means we have a good chance of getting that business. With that in mind, at some point we will have to put people on the ground in those countries.

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