Ruari McCallion enquires whether lower-cost robots can provide UK SMEs with the means to compete with low-cost countries
When the famous Fiat TV ad, with the choreographed robots, came out in 1979, the machines offered a glimpse into a future, of sorts – and it wasn’t one that looked likely to touch SMEs. Twenty years ago, robots were exotic, hugely expensive pieces of equipment that only the very largest companies could afford. They could only pay for themselves by undertaking tasks in huge volume, which is not the realm of the average smaller company. But they weren’t very adaptable. If a component came down the line slightly out of alignment, the robot would pick it up as normal, try to deal with it as normal, and end up with a dog’s breakfast of welds in precisely-calibrated wrong places or with delicate transistors inserted into the wrong holes on PCBs.
A lot has changed – robots now have far better recognition capabilities and can adapt to changes
that would previously have had them terminally confused. And prices have tumbled; you can get one for as little as £4,000 second hand, depending on functions.
“People thought that robots were too capitalintensive, too big and too complicated, but I think that, through various channels, the window has been opened for smaller companies,” said Martin Kinsella, engineering manager for robotics company Comau Estil, at its Luton facility. “Systems available now are pretty userfriendly, with good diagnostics, good uptime and longer meantime between failures. There’s been a massive improvement. There was the perception that they were a bit ‘black box’ – 10 years ago, you’d need two experts to deal with a robot.
You don’t need that any more. The systems have become that much more reliable, they run for longer and have less catastrophic failures.”
Line builders undertake more pre-sale checks and run machinery before delivery. Systems integrators get paid more on results than straightforward installation; if the system doesn’t work, then they don’t get paid. That opens the window to a lower level, to smaller companies who cannot afford the risk that major capital investment doesn’t work without beyond-budget support. The availability of robots has helped those smaller companies that have adopted them to compete, thrive and survive. Characteristix, based in Wadebridge, between Bodmin and Padstow in Cornwall, employs just 15 people in making plastic incentive and promotional items, such as key rings, badges and fridge magnets. They’re not particularly hightech but the customer list, which includes 20th Century Fox, BBC Worldwide, Disney, Universal Studios and Warner Bros, is concerned about costs. Its investment in robots three years ago has helped to save on labour costs, boosted production dramatically and secured its survival.
“Our product is incredibly price-sensitive,” said Andy Knight, who has headed the company since it was formed, in 1997. “Production is labour-intensive and we’re competing head-to-head with the Chinese. The robotic part of the process allows us to do things quicker and easier; in some cases, it can become a lights-out operation.”
Characteristix has installed a manufacturing cell comprising an ABB six-axis IRB 140 robot, a Krauss Maffei plastic injection moulding machine, a GeKu beam-robot, conveyors, and a pneumatic printing press. They replaced two 70 tonne plastic injection moulding machines that dating from the 1980s, which became so unreliable that they suffered 160 hours of downtime in a single month. The cell has reduced set-up and operating times by 30 per cent and has helped the company achieve virtually fault-free production. ROI was achieved in months, rather than years.
“The principal driver for us was efficiency,” he said. “We bought all the equipment brand new – it cost us around £120,000, including conveyors and ancillary equipment. We needed quite a lot of bespoke bits for it – essentially, the cell had to be designed and built from scratch, with drawers, transfers and complex operating heads.” Nonetheless, £120,000 sounds like a lot of money.
“The overall lower cost of the machines brought the cell within our grasp. At double the price, it wouldn’t have been viable. Initially, we thought we could almost have done without the ABB sixaxis robot but the labour we saved – probably 50 per cent – made it worthwhile.” Characteristix is actively considering investing in more robots over the next 18 to 24 months but the company hasn’t fallen into the trap of thinking that automation is the be-all and end-all.
“The more automated you are, the less flexible you become. People are quite versatile, robots aren’t. There are always places for handfinished products – but then you get into the low-wage competition,” said Knight. “But for specific requirements, robots are definitely the way forward. Anything that’s reasonably high volume works, for us. We tend to put jobs of over 10,000 on the robot; if it’s smaller, then by the time you’ve set it up, tweaked it and made sure all is well, you could probably have done it by hand.” Go to a Chinese factory with an order for, say, 2,000 to 100,000 novelty items and you’ll get pretty short shrift. Automation has enabled the company to offer a bespoke service, at a competitive price. “It was probably a make or break investment for us. Without it, we would have lost competitiveness, which would have meant less work and we may not have been in business, by now.” He believes that robots convey a better image to customers and suppliers. “I believe that people take you more seriously if they see robots in your factory, rather than guys bent over a workbench. I’m pretty sure it has swayed some customers into giving us orders; they can see we’re a serious organisation.”
Knight doesn’t believe that robots on their own are a magic bullet. They have to be part of an integrated operation, with their role and function clearly defined. They’re great for raising quality, because they will do the same task, repetitively, to the same standard. But if they’re on their own, operating virtually independently of the rest of production, then their speed only serves to deliver problems faster to the next bottleneck. Integration is something Nicolas Showan, managing director of custom furniture-maker Jali, champions.
“The most important thing is to consider the end-to-end process and connect everything together. Otherwise, islands of automation become islands of speed, which run too fast for the rest of the system,” said Showan. Kent-based Jali manufactures built-to-order, made-to-measure furniture to customer specifications and orders transmitted over the internet. In contrast to Characteristix, it’s dealing with small runs of different products; the variation seems counter to the view that robots are only useful for larger volumes and longer runs. It’s actually an illustration of how far robotics has advanced.
“The fall in cost has helped, definitely, but it’s fortunate that car makers have demanded a lot from robot manufacturers – and got it,” he said. “Compare what you can get from a £30,000 robot with what you can get from a machine tool. The last few years have seen better robots becoming available on the second-hand market. They’re very good – for £4,000 you can buy a totally serviceable, reliable robot and that makes the entry level very low.” But he still prefers to buy new; even a 10-year-old robot, with plenty of hours left in its useful life, won’t provide the flexibility he’s looking for. “Although we have one robot doing the repetitive work, others operate as machining cells, carrying out a new operation every time.
Whenever it moves, it generates another program, through another system. Effectively, we use it as a six-axis machine tool for bespoke manufacturing.”
Which indicates that data control is pretty important. “The key thing we’ve done is to make the system provide information when it’s needed. We can change the job to be done in two minutes,” he explained. “In larger companies, robots pick from a short menu of predefined programs; what we do is new every time. That’s a gap that has to be closed in the future.” He sees the use of robots in SMEs will only expand, as people become aware of their costs – and the fact that they can fulfil a range of functions, from repetitive volume work to bespoke manufacture.
“I expect to see a big change over the next 10 years. Smaller operations will pick up robots, experiment with them and maybe do things bigger companies wouldn’t,” he said. Smaller companies can’t afford to dedicate robots to one small task; they have to earn their keep and it’s that need that could lead to new developments, in the same way that the young computer geeks seize on web technologies and develop unforeseen applications like YouTube, Facebook, and the other interactive networking sites. You don’t get those from the big companies like Yahoo and Microsoft, although they buy the companies once the concept has been proved.
Jali is able to provide quality, bespoke furniture with acceptable overheads, within the UK; Characteristix is competing with low-cost labour areas in a commodity market. Comau Estil sees significant growth potential in the SME segment.
If you were pessimistic about how to overcome labour and skills shortages and how to compete against countries with rock-bottom costs, get yourself roboticised. It’s better than lobotomised, industrially speaking.