Making It Work: Automation firm stays sharp with robotics for use in pharma industry

Founded back in 1995, Sligo-based family business Ward Automation is still going from strength to strength

4th April, 2021
Making It Work: Automation firm stays sharp with robotics for use in pharma industry
John Ward of Ward Automation, which has 60 employees in Sligo and Galway. Picture: James Connolly

Twenty-six years on from its launch, Ward Automation remains at the cutting edge of automated production machinery for pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers.

With annual revenues of €8 million and 60 people employed at two facilities in Sligo and Galway, the family-run company continues to invest in robotics, leveraging artificial intelligence to stay ahead in an increasingly competitive market.

Now Ward Automation is entering a new phase in its development, following the recent launch of a large-scale automation system for inspecting pre-filled syringes.

The company has designed a robot that can test, label and palletise 600 syringes a minute. For John Ward, its founder and managing director, the move opens up fresh opportunities in new markets.

“From a technical point of view, our big focus now is on standard platforms like the syringe inspection machine,” Ward said.

“Our business to date has been mainly bespoke, where every machine we make is unique. The syringe inspection machine is different. It could potentially be used by any pharmaceutical company manufacturing syringes. That’s a new area for us.”

Ward is in the early stages of scoping out potential opportunities for standardised systems like this outside Ireland.

“There’s a lot of competition in our market now in Ireland. We are looking at expanding out into other countries,” he said.

“Building standard platforms we can sell to more than one manufacturer creates opportunities. We want to find out about customers out there who might have a use for the same kind of platforms in their manufacturing.”

A mechanical engineer by trade, Ward established Ward Automation in 1995 with his wife Celine. They ran the business starting out from their home in Bundoran, Co Donegal, signing the lease on their first premises in Sligo the following year.

“We were one of the first automation companies to set up in Ireland. I suppose I was in the right place at the right time. I’d worked for 14 years in technical design and project management for a multinational medical device manufacturer on the west coast,” Ward said.

“I’d seen the amount of automation equipment that was being brought into Ireland from countries like Germany and Italy, and I’d gained a lot of experience designing and programming these machines to bring them up to production standard. I thought we could do the same kind of automation here in Ireland.”

His very first job was worth IR£80,000, he remembers. “It was for a traditional CAM assembly machine. It was very basic, because computer controls were at a very early stage,” he said.

“The type of equipment we build these days is completely different. We use a lot of high-tech integrated systems and robotics for inspection. They have vision systems nearly as good as the human eye.

“These machines are what we call Industry 4.0. They know when they need maintenance and they tell you. We have three- to six-axis robots and ‘cobots’ that can work with people. The technology we work with has changed enormously over the years.”

Ward Automation’s main production site in Sligo is a 20,000 square feet facility in Finisklin Business Park, which opened in 2019 at a cost of €2.5 million.

A smaller 8,000 square feet factory in Galway specialises in equipment for minimally invasive device manufacturers, such as Boston Scientific and Medtronic.

“The vast majority of our business, about 80 per cent, is in Ireland. We do business with almost all of the medical device manufacturers based here,” Ward said.

“We built up the business gradually, starting out with medical devices, and then we moved into the pharmaceutical industry about five or six years ago.”

The company has annual revenues of about €8 million. Although just 20 per cent of its sales are outside Ireland, it has worked with clients as far afield as Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

“We’ve done some work in the US and in Germany as well,” Ward said. “A lot of our exports originate in Ireland. Multinationals here tend to have global sourcing departments. They find out about companies like us through their different sites around the world.”

Ward Automation is a client company of Enterprise Ireland, the state agency. “They’ve supported the company all through the years, particularly with employment grants and marketing,” Ward said.

“We’ve been supported by a lot of strong staff as well over the years. We hired our first two people back in 1996, and they’re still with us today. We have a lot of people who’ve been with us for a long time.”

Now, at the age of 62, Ward is readying the business for the next generation. “Ours is very much a family business,” he said.

“My wife Celine started the business with me. Our daughter Shauna and Kenny, Aaron and Ashley, our three sons, are all involved as well. I’m 62 now, so they’re really running the show at this stage, doing the heavy lifting. Being able to pass the company on to them is very important to me.”

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