Ireland's Automation Sector Prepares to Look Outward

Following 30 years of automation infrastructure development aimed at serving internal needs, change is in the winds for the Irish economy.

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Last month saw the official opening just outside Dublin, Ireland, of what is claimed to be the world’s largest biopharmaceutical plant. Wyeth’s 90-acre Grange Castle campus, which will produce such products as the Enbrel rheumatoid arthritis drug and the Tygacil intravenous antibiotic, currently employs 2,000 people, of whom the majority are science and engineering graduates.

The plant represents a $2 billion investment for the company. Big numbers are also a feature of the DeltaV based control system: 15, 000 I/O and over 500,000 man-hours of engineering and software design, which saw Emerson Process Management, the vendor, having to draw on development teams from the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland, Denmark and India, as well from Ireland itself.

Grange Castle may be the biggest of its kind, but major pharmaceutical investment is nothing new for the Irish economy. Indeed, it can justly lay claim to be the pharmaceutical production powerhouse of Western Europe, with recent investments by, among others, Bristol-Myers Squibb, near Dublin, and Pfizer, near Cork, merely reinforcing the trend. Nor are pharmaceuticals Ireland’s only strong suit. On the other side of the country near Limerick, for example, Dell builds all of the personal computers—typically some 20,000 a day—to service its markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Automation heavyweight

Not surprisingly, such manufacturing investment has attracted all of the world’s major automation vendors with the result that the Irish automation market has developed an importance and a level of competition which, at first sight, might seem disproportionate to a country with just 3.5 million people. At the same time, this inward investment has generated its own supporting infrastructure, so that Ireland now boasts a sophisticated network of consultants, developers and integrators, as well as arguably one of the most highly developed automation education sectors anywhere in the world.

None of this has happened by accident. Ireland’s entry, along with the United Kingdom, into what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 was the initial catalyst for its subsequent transformation from an agricultural to a high-tech industrial economy, and from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest—anyone who remembers the Ireland of the 1960s can only marvel at the Dublin of 2005. But successive Irish governments have also proved extraordinarily adept in capitalizing on the stream of infrastructure funding that has flowed from what is now the European Union (EU) and in attracting inward investment, most notably from the United States.

Now, however, the picture is about to change again. Ireland will soon transition from a net recipient of, to a net contributor to, EU funds. Within the recently enlarged EU, it is the new democracies of Eastern Europe which are now both the beneficiaries of EU largesse and the source of low cost but often well-educated labour. Ironically, it is now Eastern Europe that supplies Dublin with its waiters and chamber maids, just as Ireland did London 30 years ago.

For Ireland’s industry in general, and its automation sector in particular, that means adapting to a world in which it cannot hope to compete purely on the basis of cost. Instead it must redeploy the expertise it has developed in servicing its inward investment boom to provide higher added-value services to the global marketplace.

About the author

Andrew Bond, andrew@abpubs.demon.co.uk, is a journalist based in the United Kingdom, and is the Editor of the Industrial Automation Insider, a monthly newsletter delivered via e-mail. www.iainsider.co.uk

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