Robots rising: How Labman Automation is driving new innovation

May 1, 2019

Operating at the cutting-edge of robotic engineering, Labman Automation is recognised internationally for its advanced manufacturing skills. Steven Hugill visited the company, and its unique headquarters, to find out more

The dictionary defines the word ‘juxtaposition’ as two things seen or placed close together that provide a contrast.

Set among the lush green fields of its surroundings, Labman is a wonderful example of such.

The company’s headquarters, standing close to North Yorkshire’s border with Stockton, is home to automation concept, design and manufacture – with workers fashioning cutting-edge robotic systems for laboratories around the world.

But there’s something else.

Alongside the assorted, custom-made robotics stands a blue climbing wall. Nearby is a squash court (which doubles up as a yoga venue), a pool table, games console and fireman’s poles,

This contrast of high-tech technology and leisure amenities is striking, but it carries a serious purpose.

Working hard and playing hard is a crucial part of Labman’s DNA.

By breaking from the accepted norm of the workplace milieu, Labman’s management says it cultivates an environment of creativity, leaving staff liberated to think more innovatively.

“We are one of the leading people in the world at providing custom automation,” says Ian Riley, Labman’s technical director, “and things like the wall and pool table all helps people to be creative and share ideas.”

Of course, it wasn’t always this way.

Founded by Professor George Carter in 1979 to build robots for teaching purposes, the business operated from his home before moving to Middlesbrough’s Cadcam Centre.

Further growth and market penetration saw the company switch to Stokesley Business Park, in North Yorkshire, before it moved to its present home in nearby Seamer in 2011.

That, however, was just the start.

A 20,000 sq ft expansion, opened by Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne, in 2017, will soon be matched by another development.

Featuring space for design and manufacturing work – as well as an on-site gym, the increased footprint will help Labman, which employs just short of 100 staff, keep pace with customer demand.

“We provide automation that is built specifically for a client,” explains Ian, when asked to describe the reasons for Labman’s enduring success.

“These are people who are typically working for big, multi-national business doing research into new drugs or shampoos, paints, inks, batteries or food.

“Typically, they would approach us with an existing workflow or process they are doing or hope to do, and we work with them very closely to design technology and automation to solve their problems.

“However, in the last five years, we’ve diversified a bit,” adds Ian, who reveals the company expects to create up to 15 new jobs this year, mainly through graduates and apprentices, to maintain its growth.

He says: “Custom automation is still the core business, but about four years ago we started an instrumentation division. We come across really nice technologies and ideas in our custom automation world, and we can miniaturise those or design those in a more compact way so we can make an instrument and then sell those directly to people.”
Robots’ inevitable rise to rulers of the world is an oft used description of our increasing dependence on automated systems.

However, Ian says the relationship will be a collaboration rather than a coup d’état.

“Laboratories are going to be more and more automated,” he says.

“Doing it this way allows people to optimise things really quickly. Instead of making two or three samples a day, robotics are making 100 or 200.

“In the world of research and, specifically drug discovery, they have been automating the testing of new drugs since the mid-1990s.

“However, automation doesn’t invent or create anything new, the machines are not going to discover a new amazing formulation or next big paint – the creative part is still the people.

“It goes hand-in-hand; you have a lot of PhD qualified scientists who spend most of their day doing fairly mundane laboratory work, removing liquids from A to B and mixing them to see what happens. That is not an effective use of their skills and knowledge.

“Automation allows those people to invest their time elsewhere, be that analysing big data sets or the chemistry they are doing.”

Indeed, a look at Labman’s order book bears testament to how automation is supporting companies’ respective drives to become more efficient.

From California, where a system is being used to formulate pharmaceutical products, to a South Korean-based water analysis machine, and a paint weathering analysis apparatus in Singapore, Labman’s reach is worldwide.

Closer to home, the business has supplied equipment to support the Centre for Process Innovation’s development of next generation formulated products at NETPark, in Sedgefield, County Durham.

It was also commissioned by Liverpool University to create the £2.5m Formulation Engine for the new Materials Innovation Factory – one of eight systems the company supplied for the development.

“The demand has gone up,” says Ian. “People have increasingly gained confidence in machines and there has been a broad acceptance that automation is the way to go for doing research.”

Integral to Labman’s technology, and its ongoing evolution to meet ever-changing marketplace demands, is the company’s staff.

This, says Ian, is where the climbing wall, poles, pool tables and squash court come in.

“We have quite a relaxed atmosphere, which is designed to drive innovation and provide a space to share ideas.

“It is a creative process, and you need to bounce ideas off other people.

“You will stand in the queue waiting for the climbing wall and you’re chatting about a project, that’s how the ideas grow.

“Equally, we employ people who are engineers and hobbyists at heart.

“We expect people to be fixing cars, doing home automation or building drones, for example, so that when they get here, pretty much without exception, they are chatting about engineering.

“It is such a melting pot of ideas.”

Fundamental to Labman’s team is its cohort of graduates and apprentices.

This, says Ian, adds another dimension to the firm, with the effervescence of youth offering fresh perspectives on projects.

“It takes a long time to learn to do what we do; the recruitment and training cycle is something like two to three years.

“We can’t dilute our experienced pool of engineers too much because you lose the essence of what we are.

“Sometimes the naivety of the younger workers is a real bonus.

“In a creative environment, they are not held by the truths they’ve learnt elsewhere – they try and think of things that you maybe wouldn’t normally.

“You have to give them space to do that.”

As our conversation concludes, so does a rapid contest on the pool table, its end signalled by the sound of the last ball clunking into a pocket.

Labman, however, has its eyes on the longer game.

“People are very proud to work here and there is huge enthusiasm and excitement for the future,” says Ian.

“The demand for our services is so high.”

Labman Automation