Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit 2019: Key takeaways

My afternoon at this year’s Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit included a roundtable discussion on Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems, with delegates coming together to identify the key takeaways for them and their businesses.

The sold-out Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit gathered together 80 senior manufacturing executives - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
The sold-out Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit gathered together 80 senior manufacturing executives – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

UK manufacturing is well behind its international peers when it comes to automation and robotics – something often raised during any discussion of the country’s lacklustre productivity growth in recent years.

This lag has also been described as significantly undermining the long-term competitiveness of UK manufacturing on the global stage.

As industrial businesses respond to the convergence of powerful trends in labour supply, supply chain consolidation and optimising the balance between quality and cost, many executive teams are looking to identify:

  • What parts of their production process are best suited to automation, and what kind
  • Where their industry peers are seeing the greatest automation opportunities and successes
  • How the technology landscape has evolved, and continues to, and how best to take advantage

This year’s sold-out Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit tackled these pressing questions head-on, helping the 80 senior manufacturing executives in attendance to better define their way forward.

The summit took place at Aston Villa Football Club in Birmingham and was deftly chaired by Duncan McFarlane, Professor of Industrial Information Engineering at University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM).

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems

Red plastic boxes in the cells of the automated warehouse - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Automated storage and retrieval systems take the human-element out of storing and retrieving pallets, cartons or bins – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

From a traditional high-bay warehouse to more innovative robotic storage solutions, automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) take the human-element out of storing and retrieving pallets, cartons or bins.

A forklift vehicle would struggle to reach pallets stored 16m from the ground for example, so an automated retrieval system gives a better utilisation of height. And because the robotics system can be incredibly precise, the retrieval process takes less time per operation.

Other common benefits of ASRS include increased quality, flexibility, efficiency and employee satisfaction, alongside significantly reduced or eliminated manual handling and related health risks.

ASRS help businesses to manage growth within their existing limited or awkward space. Yet, as variability in product range increases, so too does the complexity of these automated systems.

Considerations are no longer just, ‘Do we have enough space?’ but, ‘Can we use this space more efficiently and allow us to improve production or logistics operations as a result?’, noted discussion leader Jeremy Hadall, Chief Engineer for Intelligent Automation at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC).

Like with almost every automation – nay, business – project, there is no one-size fits all when it comes to ASRS. Each business has different requirements depending on their throughput volume, product mix, lead times

Of those factors, the table agreed that product mix demonstrated the ‘Achilles Heel’ of a potential ASRS implementation – complexity requires flexibility and agility, which usually leads to quickly rising costs.

A small manufacturer represented has moved to a smart network of conveyors – something that larger companies may see as an archaic approach. Such systems have indeed been around for many years; however, for this particular business, the combination of a lower install price and it being an established, proven technology were very much positives.

I’ve previously reported on a new £32m automated storage and retrieval system at Coca-Cola European Partners’ Sidcup factory – the 25,000 pallet storage spaces of which more than trebles the 8,000 previously available onsite.

Click the link to read how how CCEP is achieving supply chain optimisation through automated warehousing


Key takeaways

Reflecting across all five of the separate discussions they’d overseen throughout the day, each table host summarised the key threads that ran though many of them:

Digital Twins:

  • Maturity of digital twins isn’t the same across different sectors or within them, with some confusion still surrounding the concept
  • The successes came from starting small, but thinking big
  • Digital twins are the ‘cherry on the digital cake’ that only comes once a business has embraced digitalisation more broadly

Employee Engagement:

  • Communication is vital
  • People still feel very threatened by automation, which shows that a change in how we promote the technology is required

Quality Inspection:

  • Many businesses undertake end of line inspection, but not so much inline inspection
  • That requires businesses to have a far greater understanding of the variability of materials coming in

Cobots vs Standard Robots:

  • Important that your business understand the pros and cons of both cobots and standard in order to make an informed decision
  • All cobots aren’t created equal, so it’s important to understand exactly what it is you require
  • Whichever you decide to go for, ensure a full risk assessment is carried out

Maximising Business Value from your Investment:

  • The benefits of digital technologies are undoubtedly achievable, but only by setting out on a ‘journey’ in the right way – for many businesses, there’s no magic leap from spreadsheets to automated quotes, for example.
  • Start with your employees and an understanding of their pain – which may not be solved through technology alone
  • Don’t become seduced by technology vendors, particularly early on in your journey – focus on your business needs
  • Look to inspiration from your peers, talk to your customers and suppliers about how you could add value to their businesses, and collaborate to drive through the benefits.

End of Line Automation:

  • There isn’t a huge amount of end of line automation in place, at least in the companies represented at the Summit, but there is certainly a willingness to adopt
  • Systems become quite complex – and expensive – when dealing with a high product variability, so is there a way you could standardise?

Autonomous Mobile Robotics:

  • Looking at the technology in isolation isn’t the right approach, you need to step back and look at the wider picture
  • Don’t just simply automate an existing process, could that process be improved?

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems:

  • When considering automation, too much focus is being placed on production and not enough on warehousing and material handling
  • There is no silver bullet for storage and retrieval systems, so make sure you know exactly what it is you want to achieve