Automation for Industry….Sphere’s World Vision
Whenever there is widespread change in any sector, it’s a safe bet that a word or phrase will be coined to describe it. So, on that note, the new buzzword for the increasing automation of industry is Industry 4.0. Think about what the Industrial Revolution did for the Victorians and you start to get a picture of the type of wholesale change that is already taking hold in the industrial sector worldwide.
Sean McNicholl doesn’t need to be told about Industry 4.0, its challenges and its opportunities. He has achieved more in six short years than a lot of entrepreneurs can hope to achieve in a lifetime of doing business. The Co. Derry software and automation specialist returned home from working overseas and set up Cornerstone Automation Systems (later rebranded to become Sphere) six years ago, and the industry automations specialist firm is already working with customers like Amazon and competing with Siemens and other giants of the industry. As a software engineer starting out over in America, he recalls being sent by his company to the control room of the Hoover Dam.
“I remember thinking that maybe I should call my mum and ask her to buy me a ticket back home. I was horribly out of my depth,” he says. But the Hoover Dam experience didn’t dent young Sean’s enthusiasm. He went on to travel around the world in various roles, building up plenty of experience along the way. And he’s still clocking up the miles today.
In the past year, he reckons that he’s logged close to 130 flights to talk to Sphere customers in the likes of Dubai, India and Australia. Sphere’s business is the business of automation. In short, the company helps its customer companies to coordinate the flow of materials and supplies through large manufacturing operations, warehouses and distribution centres. The company’s bespoke solutions – and they’re all bespoke solutions – are designed to minimise costs and to maximise efficiencies and accuracies through the process.
“Our aim is always to come up with a solution that works for the customer, a solution that ultimately increases profitability. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about,” says Sean McNicholl. What is remarkable about the company, based at Campsie, is that it does everything in house. “We start by talking to the customer, finding out what they need and then we come up with the concept design,” explains McNicholl. “But we also do all the fabrication, the software development, the building, the testing, the installation on site and the after sales service and maintenance.”
Sean McNicholl reckons that his industry is the second fastest-growing sector in the world (second to healthcare), and perhaps that’s not surprising given the growth in large-scale distribution warehouse operations all over the globe. “So we looked at global targets right from the start. There was never any question of us starting with local markets and then developing from there. This is a sector that’s expanding rapidly, so our targets have to be ambitious and they have to be on a global scale.”
It’s an approach that seems to be working. Sphere has doubled or trebled its turnover every year since it started out in business. The company operates across a number of industry sectors, and healthcare remains a core business. A couple of years ago, Sphere’s R&D team at Campsie came up a new drug dispensing system capable of dispensing up to 100 million prescriptions a year. It’s this kind of technology that is putting a relatively small company in Northern Ireland on the global map and helped it to win the ‘GROWTH THROUGH EXPORT AWARD 2016’ at the North West Business Awards Ceremony in May 2016.
Sean McNicholl’s decision to re-brand the company from Cornerstone to Sphere also had a clear vision in mind. “I want Sphere to be a big international brand,” he says simply. “I want this company to be the company big businesses turn to for their automation needs.”
The firm has a number of sales agents working on its behalf around the world, but a lot of the sales effort still falls on the shoulders of the company founder and CEO. “We’re active now in 16 countries worldwide, and just about every sector we’re working with is growing,” he says. As a hands-on CEO, he’s built up an impressive list of contacts, from the CEO’s of some of India’s bigger corporations to senior people in Apple and members of the Dubai ruling family. The customer list too is impressive and includes names like Dell, Amazon and Next.
“There are few big organisations now who don’t have some element of automation in their business,” McNicholl adds. “And those levels of automation are increasing all the time.” Three or four years ago, there were an estimated 3,500 SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) management systems in operation worldwide. Now these systems, used by Amazon amongst others, number well over 50,000…..and growing.
“Our customers come to us with a problem. That’s how this business works. It’s down to us to provide a cost effective solution to those problems, whatever it is that they produce or distribute. Our technology is out there working with medicine, food, tyres and tablets at the moment.
“We have customer sites where robots are working alongside people, and we have others where we’ve taken automation to the leading edge of technology.
“Working globally means working on some large-scale projects. We are involved in one site in Bangalore in India which extends to 2 million square feet and has 45 robots as part of its automation system.” At any given time, there is going to be a number of Sphere teams overseas working on customer site installations…..in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Dubai, Germany or elsewhere. Sphere also provides 24/7 remote cover. “We can talk to any piece of our technology anywhere in the world using our phones or laptops, and we can often solve problems wherever they are within minutes.”
But there are also local examples of how Sphere can make a difference for its customers. At Lynas Food Service in Coleraine, Sphere redesigned and automated a chilled foods packing line and significantly increased the number of lorry loads processed per hour. Founded with just four employees just as recession kicked in back in 2010, the company now has a team of 80 engineers and other staff and anywhere up to 50 sub-contractors at any given time. Sean McNicholl has his concerns over future staffing levels….and being able to find the right people to maintain Sphere’s rapid growth.
“One of the biggest problems we face is the fact that this is a relatively new sector, and the skills aren’t taught at colleges or universities to any great degree. But we’ve started to engage with the universities and we’re hoping to have more and more students coming on board with the training they need to work in a leading edge industry.
“But we’re also prepared to train on the job. In a business like this, there’s no substitute for working in the real world with our customers.” Sphere is also in the early stages of planning a 100,000 sq.ft extension to its Campsie plant, a move which would mean the recruitment of some 70-80 new staff.
“At 200,000 sq.ft we would become the largest automation plant in the UK as a whole, and we’ll need that kind of capacity to handle orders that we already have on our books going forward. We have a very firm aim to be the market leaders in this sector and to become a £100 million turnover company.
“And we think that it’s achievable through repeat business, through innovation in new product lines and through research and development. The technology, in this business, is always developing. Just In Time principles are king. Our customers, and the solutions that they have in place, are driving this company forward.
“We’re providing the heartbeat in each of our customers’ operations, and that’s something that we’re very proud of.”