When it comes to robots and automation in the workplace, many businesses still regard automation as a “nice-to-have” that’s only meant for the biggest players in the market.
FANUC UK’s Mark Schlanker is here to argue that automation is becoming a must-have for the future of all UK manufacturing, big or small, and that machine tending might just be the best place to start.
It’s finally happened. You’ve invested in a state-of-the-art, wire-cut EDM machine that will revolutionise the way you and your company work. You also have the potential to increase your productivity, expand the scope of your operations and improve the quality of your manufactured components. Your customers are thrilled that you are investing in the future.
Why, then, is Phil still standing by the machine, loading and unloading the parts as they move from one process to another? It may seem strange to imagine the latest in automated manufacturing technology working alongside a manual machine tending process that has been used for decades, yet it’s one that we’re still seeing on factory floors up and down the country.
The statistics speak for themselves. According to a report released by IFR World Robotics Statistics in 2015, the UK has only 71 robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees. Compare this to: South Korea, where there are 500 robots to every 10,000 employees; Germany and Japan, where there are 300; and Sweden and Denmark, where there are 200, and you begin to build an idea of just how far behind the UK is in terms of automation and robotics.
In many cases, it’s only when directors are gathered around the table to discuss how efficiency could be improved, not to mention how Phil’s time could be put to better use, that the words “robot” and “automation” begin to make an appearance. In fact, whether you want to retrofit a robot to existing production lines, or build them in from the start, automating manual, repetitive processes such as machine tending comes with a host of benefits to productivity, efficiency profitability and competitiveness in the long term.
Here are a few reasons why manufacturers should consider upgrading their high-volume, low cycle production processes to the latest in automation and robotics.
- Robots are highly repeatable.
Robots don’t get tired. They aren’t affected by low energy or distractions, and they don’t make mistakes. Once a robot has been programmed to carry out a task, whether that’s moving a part from one machine to another, or loading a magazine for uninterrupted machining, the robot will perform that task without hesitation or deviation. As a result, parts or components are of a highly consistent quality, reducing the loss or wastage of key materials due to machine errors or incongruity.
- Robots will run for as long as needed, whether manned or unmanned.
In an international market, manufacturers need to ensure that production continues, even after the last employee has left the building. Robots don’t need sleep, and require little intervention or supervision once programmed. The reliability of automated technology means that manufacturers who choose to invest in robots for machine tending will be able to achieve lights-out, unmanned running for increased output and higher productivity.
- Robots can work in environments that humans cannot.
Machining often involves working in aggressive or dangerous environments, where continuous exposure could lead to health problems or injury for human workers. Days lost to illness or injury can be expensive for manufacturers, and cause disruption to production and output. Modern robots are capable of working in even the harshest of environments, include those where extreme temperatures, dust or debris are common. They’re also flexible, strong and highly durable, meaning that a robot can be adapted to suit almost any machine tending application required.
- Robots free up human workers for complex, rewarding and valuable tasks.
Despite the developments currently being made in artificial intelligence, a robot cannot compare with the adaptability of the human brain. Why, then, waste paid employees with engineering experience on manual, repetitive tasks that anybody could do? By replacing workers with robots for machine tending applications, manufacturers can then retrain employees for any areas of the business that are under-staffed, such as maintenance, monitoring, programming or repairs. For employees, this also means a more varied and rewarding working day, which increases job satisfaction and reduces the rate of employee turnover.
- Robots provide the perfect plug-and-play solution.
Most robots operate using a similar control system, and the best ones will be easy to use, with little programming experience required. It is best practice, however, to ensure that a cell largely includes the same brand of machines. This will ensure that the robots and machines will be able to communicate effectively, with minimum set-up required. In some cases, integration of a robot as part of a cell could take as little as two hours, making it the perfect plug-and-play solution for machine tending applications.
- Robots are flexible and can work with more than one part.
Although robots cannot tend several different machines at once, they can work with a range of parts and components, if programmed correctly. For example, an automatic tool-change station will allow a robot to change grippers in order to suit the size and shape of the part being handled. Vision capabilities also ensure that a robot can recognise a part as it is fed-in, and alter its position, gripper or function accordingly.
- Robots can potentially achieve a return on investment in less than two years.
The slow uptake of robots by manufacturers is often due to a hesitation over the purchase cost. While robots may not currently be cost-effective for low volume, high cycle time production, they can achieve a return on investment for high volume, low cycle time processes. In some cases, this can be achieved in as little as two years. This is largely due to the increased productivity, capacity, efficiency and unmanned capability that a robot can provide for a manufacturing process, but it is also representative of the expansion capabilities that automation can present to UK manufacturers who, thanks to a higher level of reliable, consistent output, are able to compete at an international level to a wider range of customers and sectors.
UK manufacturing can only compete on an international level if it recognises the importance of integrating automation and robotics as a part of its processes. Swapping out workers for robots on manual, repetitive tasks is a simple and effective place to start. By taking this first step, manufacturers are investing in the future productivity and efficiency of UK manufacturing, as well as the skills of the UK workforce. That is the true value of automation.
To find out more about retrofitting robots for machine tending, please visit http://www.fanuc.eu/uk/en/industrial-applications/machine-tending