Why its time for the UK to switch to robots

Posted on 8 Oct 2009 by The Manufacturer

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) and the United Nations Economic Commission Europe (UNECE) predicts the robotics industry will be worth £38 billion by 2025 creating an innovation-driven and export-orientated industry. Nigel Platt, marketing manager for ABB’s UK robotics business, explains why UK manufacturing companies should consider robotics and how they can encourage global competition on our shores.

With the European robotics market expected to grow by 3.6% within the next twelve months, UK manufacturers need to consider automated solutions to transform productivity and profitability and to help ensure the long term sustainability of the UK’s manufacturing industry.

Many of the problems that have delayed the uptake of robotic technology have now been addressed, to offer all industries and businesses, of all sizes, the technology to unlock new levels of productivity, performance and profitability through faster, flexible and more accurate production, including: The manufacturing value of automated cells has already been recognised, with over £35m being spent annually on robotics research at 250 universities and research institutes across Europe. Ulf Dahlsten, Director of ‘Emerging Technologies and Infrastructures – Applications’ at the European Union (EU) urged EU businesses back in 2005 to turn their robotics research into viable products much more quickly, and to push robots into new market areas.

In 2007, the popularity of robotics in Asia stagnated, America grew by 12%, while the use of industrial robots in Europe increased by 10%. However, sales to the United Kingdom again declined, placing the UK amongst the lowest adopters of robotic technology in recent years.

In the UK, there are currently between 50-75 robots for every 10,000 workers, putting us substantially behind our competitors in France, Spain, Germany, China and Japan – where the demand for robots continued to grow, with a further 38,100 units were sold.

The most successful sector to use robotics within the UK are those manufacturers in the automotive industry, where automated technology currently accounts for 60% of the United Kingdom’s operational stock of robots. As investment from the metal, rubber and plastics and food and beverage industries increases, manufacturers from all sectors are beginning to recognise the importance of delivering enhanced levels of performance and productivity. Robots have been proved to be capable of delivering such benefits, as well as higher levels of output, product quality and flexibility amongst the benefits reported.

Given these benefits then, why are UK companies being so slow to embrace the technology?

The reluctance to embrace robotic technology could be considered a consequence of the general uncertainty about manufactured goods in the UK, which in turn affects the willingness of manufacturers to make longer term investments.

Without investment, businesses may be resigned to outsourcing overseas. However, the predictability of robotic technology makes it an ideal solution to this dilemma. By delivering consistent performance with minimal overheads, robots can help companies to more confidently predict factors such as cost of production, turnaround times, output levels and product quality, which can in turn be used to inform future investment

This is where robots come in. Financially affordable and offering long term savings, robots can fulfil a major role in helping boost the competitiveness of UK industrial companies, particularly SMEs.

Reduced operating costs

Robots offer consistent performances with minimal overheads helping companies to more confidently predict factors such as the cost of production, turnaround times, output levels and product quality.

Taken together, improvements in these areas can result in a surprisingly fast return on investment.

Consider, for example, that the cost of a six-axis industrial robot has dropped by 50% over the past 15 years, enabling robots to offer a typical hourly operating expense of just £5. At the same time, according to recent statistics from the International Federation of Robotics, the average cost of a manual worker in the UK has risen to around £10.71 per hour. Robots can also eliminate the additional costs associated with manual workers, in terms of training, health and safety and employee administration.

Furthermore, with no requirement for minimum lighting or heating levels, robots offer a great opportunity to cut energy bills. Current estimates point to a potential saving of 8 per cent for every 1ºC in heating levels, and up to 20% by turning off unnecessary lighting.

Improved product quality and consistency

Ensuring consistently high quality finishing of materials, robots provide inherent accuracy and this repeatability means a high quality finish for every product is produced. This is further supported by less errors caused by human factors such as tiredness, distraction or the effects of repetitive or tedious tasks.

Improved quality of work for employees

By using robots in dusty, hot or hazardous environments, companies can improve the working conditions for their human employees. Teaching staff how to use the robots can improve staff motivation, as employees recognise the chance to learn valuable programming skills and carry out work that is more stimulating.

Increased production output rates

Unlike human employees, robots need little supervision and can be left running overnight and during weekends. This enables manufacturers to achieve true 24 hours production to increase output levels and meet client order deadlines.

Increased product manufacturing flexibility
Robots can also introduce a new degree of flexibility to a manufacturer’s production line. Once the processes you require are programmed into the robot controller, manufacturers can quickly switch from one to another. A massive financial benefit, this enables manufacturers to maximise the money they are spending on robotics equipment by ensuring the cells are used for more than one process.

Reduced material waste and increased yield
Manufacturers can be assured that with the improved accuracy from using robots also ensures that companies can have more products finished first time to the standard required by the customers. As a result of this, the amount of waste produced because of poor-quality or inconsistent finishing is dramatically reduced.

Compliance with safety rules and improved workplace health and safety

Enabled with the ability to take over jobs in dusty, hot or hazardous environments, robots can also take charge of unpleasant, arduous or healththreatening tasks currently handled by manual workers.

Robots can decrease the likelihood of accidents caused by contact with machine tools or other potentially hazardous product machinery or processes. Robots can also help to eliminate staff ailments associated with repetitive or intensive processes, e.g. repetitive strain injuries (RSI), which costs UK industry over £300 million each year in lost productivity.

Reduced labour turnover and difficulty of recruiting skilled workers
Despite the UK having the second highest employment rate in Europe, 4 out of 10 companies often find it difficult to recruit skilled workers. Highly skilled manual workers are now harder and more expensive to employ.

Here, robots can provide an ideal alternative. Once programmed, robots can begin work with none of the costs associated with recruitment or ongoing training and can provide great flexibility, in terms of work patterns and the ability to handle different production tasks.

Reduced capital costs
With less manual labour needed, fewer costs relating to sickness, accidents and insurance are occurred.

With robots, businesses can reduce the cost of consumables used and reduce wastage dramatically.

Space savings in high value manufacturing areas
Robots can be placed on shelf systems, on walls or even on ceilings offering the most flexible solutions for save spacing in high value manufacturing areas. The robots can be programmed to work in confined spaces ensuring manufacturers don’t lose valuable floor space.

Simple technology
Holding back the use of robots in manufacturing, is the belief that the technology is too sophisticated for most basic manufacturing applications. Robot technology is mature. It is well tried and tested and the variety of robots available means that virtually any manufacturing line can benefit from the technology. It is no longer the domain of large scale manufacturers like the automotive sector, a pivotal part of the UK manufacturing industry, but is now available to all businesses, including small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) – who often do not realise they are potentially the greatest benefactor.

Proven to work
As an example, ABB highlights Cornish SME, Characteristix, which makes badges, magnets and key rings along with other moulded plastic items.

Characterisitix realised that if the company did not evolve its way of working, then the businsess would close against stiff competition from low cost Far East manufacturers.

It transformed its labour intensive moulding and printing process into a fully automated system. The result is a self-contained manufacturing cell that creates virtually finished products from raw materials.

The manufacturing cell – comprising of an ABB six-axis IRB 140 robot, plastic injection moulding machine, beam robot, conveyors, and pneumatic printing press – is helping Characteristix retain a competitive edge, even when pitted against the Far East ‘giants’ of the industry.

Not only has the cell ramped up production, but it has brought interest and variety to much of the production workforce. “Many of our staff, who were previously employed on manual labouring tasks, have risen to the challenge of robot-based manufacturing, readily participating in robot programming and operator tuition to enhance their skills,” says Andy Knight of Characteristix.

As a result of introducing robots into the product line, Characteristix has noted a huge decrease in downtime and improve efficiency and costs reduced by 5%. Now, at the factory in Cornwall, 33,000 pieces are produced per day, up more than 100% since installing the ABB robots.

A robotic future As robots become ever more affordable, ABB provides a range of alternatives to buying a brand new robot, including second hand refurbishment, leasing or applying for a grant to help financially. With companies across the world acknowledging the power of robotics to improve productivity, profitability and encourage long term sustainability, we are confident that the use of robots in industry, as predicted, will continue to expand.

For further information on the benefits of integrating robots into your production process, please email [email protected] or call 01908 350 300 quoting the reference ‘The Manufacturer/Robotics’.