Workers need not fear the robot revolution

Manufacturing operatives need not fear the revolution – the rise of the robots should improve human jobs and will lead to the creation of new types of jobs, not take them.

Hidden in a green and pleasant Warwickshire university campus is a futuristic test bed which will help firms revolutionise their manufacturing systems for the digital age.

Combining a modular set-up and digital twinning, a new full-scale demonstrator space in the International Manufacturing Centre at the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), University of Warwick, will help companies of all sizes to figure out what they want and need when it comes to digitalisation.

Robert Harrison, Professor in Automation at WMG, explains.

The new full-scale demonstrator space in the International Manufacturing Centre at the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG).
The new full-scale demonstrator space in the International Manufacturing Centre at the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG).

Let’s face it – currently, a lot of manufacturing operates in a far from optimal manner.

In the face of unpredictable customer demand or unforeseeable disturbances, both within a company or its supply chain, production systems often fail to produce the right volumes of the right products, of the right quality and at the right time.

But there are practical systems within reach that can help.

If applied correctly, new enabling technologies and innovations in automation and digitalisation offer the promise to address such productivity and quality issues.

The application of digitalisation in manufacturing holds the potential to enable real-time connectivity across all the relevant sub-systems.

Done properly, this should involve and integrate people and production machinery in a more holistic, adaptable manufacturing system where information can be collected, analysed and dynamically acted upon.

This article first appeared in the February issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.

Solving the productivity puzzle

Realising the potential of industrial automation is vitally important to the UK. It is seen by many as one way of solving the current productivity puzzle. As the Made Smarter report says, manufacturing contributes over £6.7tn to the global economy and makes a significant contribution to UK plc.

The report concluded that by effectively adopting industrial digitalisation, the UK has the potential to realise industrial efficiency gains of up to 25%, and manufacturing sector growth of 1.5-3%, delivering annual growth of approximately 0.5% of GDP.

Robot Revolution - The International Manufacturing Centre at the WMG demonstrator is a modular and reconfigurable system.
The International Manufacturing Centre at the WMG demonstrator is a modular and reconfigurable system.

Dynamically adaptable automation (DAA) systems being created at WMG seek to combine capabilities of both configuration and run-time optimisation with the goal of enabling a profound change in manufacturing agility and sustainability.

The aim is to enable and realise step-changes in the adaptability of manufacturing systems, with operational improvements measurably and visually reflected via key performance indicators (KPIs) in real-time.

For example: improved build to schedule (BTS), improved overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), and better first-time-through (FTT). We want all these KPIs to be achievable while at the same time having a system that is highly responsive to customer need and choice.

Demonstration’s what you need

The Automation Systems Group at WMG is building a full-scale demonstrator to enable the realisation of DAA and its effective showcasing to industry in the context of real production problems.

The demonstrator is a modular and reconfigurable system and hence the applications can be progressively changed as new requirements emerge. The application scenarios being trialled all relate to real-use cases with industrial partners.

One of the important things to emphasise is the system flexibly integrates people cooperatively with robots and autonomous guided vehicles, and closely combines assembly automation with materials handling.

This minimises non-value adding activities within adaptable processes, so that the product variety and volumes can by dynamically changed. Automation should be sympathetic with the operators and sustainable as well as profitable.

It has the potential to enhance job roles, help in decision making and create a better working environment. It should be looked at as an opportunity to reskill or upskill a workforce – to complement rather than take humans out of the equation.

A key aspect of WMG’s research aims to integrate people and production machinery in holistic, adaptable manufacturing systems.
A key aspect of WMG’s research aims to integrate people and production machinery in holistic, adaptable manufacturing systems.

The demonstrator features methods and tools applicable to both SMEs and large companies. It will include an automated goods-to-man station, a material handling and logistics system, process monitoring and part traceability systems, a flexible warehousing system and a flexible manual workstation.

This publically available demonstration space will allow companies to test out aspects of automation, and the team can work with them to scale it up and help them on the journey.

Digital twins

Within the demonstrator, assembly or materials handling modules can be exchanged physically and also virtually – so new virtual-module models can be swapped in and out in place of physical modules.

Digital-twins are used to hold the static and dynamic representation of a system and its constituent components throughout their lifecycle.

The realisation of such data models is another major focus of this programme and it holds the potential for innovations related not only to adaptable automation, which can evolve to cope with unforeseen changes and requirements, but also using advanced data analytics to optimise systems and their constituent components and processes.

Testing times

A key aspect of the approach being adopted at WMG is forming a pipeline to progressively develop and then maximise the impact of innovative automation systems.

Again, thinking about sustainable development, using this demonstrator set-up can provide a good entry-level point for digitalisation, and can help make systems agile and adaptable to change.

The approach WMG uses is to develop proof-of-concept systems from bench-top demonstrators through to full-scale pilot implementations to make-like production lines and ultimately to factory installation, working closely with industry partners all the way through.

Engage with research

WMG offers skills training and education in support of digitalisation.
WMG offers skills training and education in support of digitalisation.

Any business thinking about automation or wanting to test scenarios can become involved with the research work that WMG undertakes.

Depending on the scale and specific company need, the team can collaborate on anything from student placements, internships, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, and feasibility projects – where smaller-scale applied engagement is appropriate – through to larger, longer-term projects where EPSRC, Innovate UK, or Manufacturing Catapult funding can often be secured and combined with a company’s own direct investment in the project.

WMG uses a phased approach, so that a deep mutual understanding of the problems, the technology and the business case can be built up, delivering results progressively as the level of engagement grows.

It is vitally important that there is an understanding of the current state and problem areas, and that the utilisation of the technology is being driven by customer need.

With new multi-disciplinary skills sets, including informatics, being required to run these kind of set-ups, skills training and education in support of digitalisation can also be offered if needed.

Get involved with WMG

For further information about the research work taking place in automation at WMG, or to find out more about the demonstrator, please contact: 

wmgbusiness@warwick.ac.uk

A key facet of the WMG approach is to identify saleable digital technologies, for both assembly and materials handling, with a low cost of entry and offering a progressive migration from manual to automated solutions, where a business case for this emerges and as a business grows.

The team works with companies to develop a strategy for the complementary development and integration of operational technologies with information technology.

The digitalisation further offers an opportunity for the better integration of logistics and manufacturing processes, both internally and across the supply chain.

Currently, the focus is on the electrification, battery, automotive, and general assembly sectors, but the automation team is keen to broaden the application domains and migrate these enabling technologies as widely as possible in new sectors.

WMG works with large companies and suppliers, down to SME level – where there is potentially the greatest need and opportunity.