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Robots in manufacturing

13 February 2012

The banking collapse and other troubles in the financial sector have encouraged economists to reassess the value of a strong manufacturing sector to the nation. Because the UK is not a low wage economy, automated production is essential to achieve competitiveness, increase yield, improve quality and increase profitability. Barry Weller, Product Manager for Robots with Mitsubishi Electric UK looks at technological solutions and government support for them.

The UK now recognises that automation and robotics are essential for sustainable manufacturing. They enable businesses to operate efficiently and grow market share, thus supporting and creating jobs. This is perhaps in contrast to earlier attitudes that paid little more than lip service to supporting the national manufacturing capability.

The government is beginning to back manufacturing very positively. For instance, it has welcomed a four-country benchmarking study by the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA). This shows that Britain has invested significantly less in automation technologies than much of Europe and the rest of the world, and that this is due in part to a lack of knowledge and skills and an adverse attitude to risk.

It is interesting to use a country’s installed base of robots as an indicator to the level of adoption of automation. Looking at the inter-country comparison; Germany has 150,000 industrial robots, Italy 60,000, France 35,000 and Spain nearly 30,000. This swamps the UK’s 15,100. Unsurprisingly Japan has the most robotised manufacturing base, and even the USA is ahead of Britain.

For this reason the Department of Business, Industry and Skills is contributing £600,000 to a two year automation and robotics programme that will help companies automate. This is being run by EAMA and the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA), who along with trade bodies, such as the Food and Drink Federation and the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association are implementing a regional events programme to help companies understand the benefits of automation.

Automation brings many benefits but full automation is not always affordable in all instances. In such cases a robot solution could be considered. This would allow critical parts of the manufacturing process to be automated and significantly robots can easily be reprogrammed to carry out new tasks.

When assessing an investment in automation, benefits can include; labour savings, improvements in accuracy, reduction in waste, better utilisation of resources through unmanned running, reduced errors, increased yield, health and safety by removing people from dangerous tasks, improved employee relations through reduced repetitive work, flexibility through quick changeovers leading to smaller batch sizes and reduced stock and work in progress.

In terms of customer response and service, the flexibility of robots make it fairly easy to increase and decrease output in line with demand fluctuations with few cost implementations. The consistency of automation ensures product quality is maintained, ensuring customer satisfaction.

Robots don’t tire, lose concentration and make mistakes and they demonstrably reduce damage and deformation due to incorrect handling. Their repeatability and consistency allows the maintenance of tighter tolerances, keeping product quality levels high and costs minimised, resulting in improved customer satisfaction.

Many UK businesses already have well organised and productive operations, in fact Britain excels at ‘lean manufacturing’ but to remain competitive into the future requires investment. Squeezing more from the same operations and facilities ultimately has a limit.

The EAMA report identified four main barriers to investment in automation:
 Awareness - Not enough is known of successful automation elsewhere, or of the costs and benefits
 Risk - Many companies do not have sufficient supplier and in-house support to consider changing existing manufacturing systems
 Financing - In the UK payback expectations are typically ‘less than two years’ and initial automation costs may look prohibitive but reduced whole life asset costs must be considered
 Time - Engineers are completely focussed on that day’s operations. They do not have time for long term planning – or for learning new skills
In summary, the government will be making funds available to encourage automation and robotics and leverage academic, R&D and design expertise into the mainstream economy. The UK Food & Beverage industry has a history of adopting automation for its production lines and process control but maybe not so much for its use of robots as part of an integrated automation solution.
The right choice of automation platform can open up the possibility of marrying robot technology with the existing automation solutions and delivering significant improvement to operational efficiencies.

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