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Robots and the labour force

Author : Roger Haw is Managing Director of Flame Hardeners Ltd

16 June 2017

Robotics have, to a greater or lesser degree, been a feature of manufacturing for several decades.

Shutterstock image

For example, many of us will remember the Fiat Strada ‘Hand built by Robots’ television ad campaign from 1979, showing the vehicles being created on an impressive robot operated production line.

Since then their use in manufacturing has become commonplace and there is currently much discussion as to whether robotics could replace the human workforce. Roger Haw, managing director of Flame Hardeners Ltd. gives his view on the extent to which this could become reality.

Robot: A machine (which could be programmed by a computer) to undertake a complex series of actions automatically. 

This definition is rather different from the image of an artificial man arriving at the side of your armchair with a cup of tea on a tray.

It is feasible that in a manufacturing/engineering environment a component could be produced on a series of machines undertaking different operations and linked by programmable handling operations in between different units. It is reasonable to define the whole collection of machines and the transfer units as a robot. Extend the boundary, and the tooling has to be put in the machines, the raw material must be presented to the machines. The machine shop itself then becomes a huge robot.

Extending the boundary further, the tooling and the raw material have to be brought from the stores. The store could operate on automatic picking and tools can be placed in a selected order on pallets for delivery to the machine shop. The incoming tools to the factory can be automatically selected from the transport and placed correctly in the stores. The whole lot is then moved to the machine shop on a driverless programmed vehicle. The stores are now a robot.

The “stores robot” feeds the “machine shop robot”. Add the “assembly shop” robot and the manufacturing unit is complete with programmed marshalling and movement without the involvement of bodies on the shop floor.

But have the robots replaced the people in the factory? No - there may have been a few reductions in numbers but the main effect has been redistribution of the labour force away from manufacturing operations to cleaner, and perhaps more satisfying, tasks such as programming the robots. The machine operator previously programmed his CNC machine, now the technician programmes all machines in the sequence and the handling of items between the machines. 

In the event of something going wrong then diagnostic programmes will determine the faults, but the human in the form of a maintenance man actually has to go in there and replace faulty parts or make routine adjustments to compensate for wear and tear. 

Is the ultimate dream that the robot repairs the robots? Major economies now have to provide a high standard of technical education to keep the robots running efficiently.

This image represents an item that couldn’t be tackled by a robot

The advantage of the robot is that it can manufacture volume or batch parts accurately and efficiently and more economically than previously. The robot can “fetch”, “carry”, “position” and most importantly handle toxic substances hazardous to workers in particular areas. However, there will always be some applications that will not be economical, such as repairs to plant and machinery. 

Roger Haw believes that the increased use of the robot will see the work force moved from production operations, stores operations, and inspection operations to programming and maintenance activity. 

Robots will not replace people. The future work force will control and maintain the robots. It will be necessary to establish education and training to provide a suitably qualified workforce and this will be the next area of debate. And it is one that Flame Hardeners has already begun to address.

While examining its workforce requirements for the next three years, it looked at the current structure of the company and realised that its four longest serving members of staff have a combined total of more than 135 years’ experience in flame and induction hardening.

The company assumed that all of them have been with the company for this length of time because they are happy here. 

On discussing the matter with them, Flame Hardeners found that all four are really proud that they are engaged on work which they consider to be interesting and highly skilled, and which requires unique process training that is not readily available in centres of further education or provided by the many training agencies currently in existence.

Flame Hardeners has never concentrated on high volume work. Instead, it has serviced the specialised requirements of high value components (ranging from items weighing as little as 5gm. up to 20 tonnes), most of which require bespoke heat treatment. The specific treatment is selected following discussion with the customer regarding their requirements and the most suitable materials to employ in achieving these.

Every member of the work force is multi-skilled and can set up and operate every item of machinery used for flame and induction hardening within the company and, working as a team, they constantly assist each other in providing customer satisfaction.

Over the years, Flame Hardeners has developed a unique training programme, which is now ready for taking in newest recruits. 

Hopefully, in the years to come the company will still be able to share its pride in the collective experience and knowledge available to its customers.

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