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Robotic machine tending and material handling will help secure the future of UK manufacturing

03 August 2017

The productivity and competitiveness of the UK’s manufacturing sector could be transformed by embracing the latest developments in robotic automation technology.

Click here to read this article in the digital issue

As the capabilities of robots have grown, so too has the scope for deploying them in applications previously deemed unsuitable for robotic automation, opening up new opportunities for UK SMEs in particular.

Matt Rollins, ABB Product Line Manager for machine tending products, explains how the latest machine tending robots can help transform UK manufacturing by overcoming many of the hurdles previously associated with introducing robotic automation in small scale and low volume production process.

Machine tending 

Machine tending: any task which involves loading/unloading a primary machine

The above definition describes a task that is common across a wide range of manufacturing sectors. Many UK companies are still using human operators to manually load and unload and start/stop machines but increasing global adoption of smart technologies coupled with a shortage of skilled operators is bringing about a change. 

There are many buzzwords surrounding the ‘smart factory’. The general understanding is that existing technologies will be brought together so that companies can manufacture products faster, flexibly and more efficiently. There is a potential £1.5 billion UK market for manufacturing technology equipment , and robotic automation will play a key role. 

However, there is a misconception that smart technologies are only suitable for mass production, typical of the automotive industry. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the take up of robots in general UK manufacturing lags behind our leading international competitors. Considering there are hundreds of thousands of engineering companies in the UK – many of these being SMEs – in 2015, only 8,651 robots were used for machine tending applications . By comparison, North America used 103,625 and Germany 101,588 . 

An ABB 2013 survey of 221 UK-based manufacturing companies revealed a number of other reasons for reluctance to invest in robots:

• Not flexible enough to handle multiple products

Automation is complex and requires a high level of skill to operate

• Why would I use automation unless I have a problem?

• Installation is disruptive, time consuming and costly

• Payback doesn’t fit within acceptable ROI timeframe

Matt Rollins emphasises that despite the reluctance, now is the time to make the switch to robotic machine tending. In many cases, companies are struggling to look at the bigger picture, merely focusing on labour savings but rarely is automation justified on labour savings alone. 

ABB solutions

As a technology provider, ABB feels it has a responsibility to provide people with the tools to address these challenges. The company introduced a range of standardised solutions created specifically for machine tending applications, designed by engineers with roots in machine tools. These have evolved over the past 10 years to become more efficient, faster, flexible, easier to use and cost effective. ABB has almost a 1,000 units already in the market.

The solutions are integrated into one neat package:

• Robot and robot controller


• Feed conveyor belts

• Buffers 

• Vision system 

The machines are quick and easy to install and set up – all cells can be in operation within a day. The HMI is the same across all of the ABB robotic machine tending solutions and easy to master. 

One such solution is designed to load and unload machine tools using vision-guided robotics, it’s available in two variants and comes complete with a robot controller inside its fully integrated control cabinet. This solution can increase machine utilisation by as much as 60 percent. 

So how do these ABB solutions address automation challenges?

With more use of robotic machine tending, there is a reduced need for skilled workers through improved utilisation of the existing workforce. One person can supervise many machines and learn new skills through involvement in programming, leading to an improved working environment. Automation also improves health and safety with reduced injury risk.

Operators are now free to perform other high value tasks whilst supervising multiple machine tending cells. This flexibility enables a greater range of products to be produced in a short turnaround, bringing the UK in line with its competitors.  

Significant savings can also be achieved; automation opens up an opportunity for continuous 24 hour production and faster production times. This reduces lost time between batches compared to manual-based systems. Part recognition and an intuitive HMI makes programming easy and vision systems enable products to be recognised in a range of orientations. The machines are easily adaptable – new products can be introduced in as little as 10 minutes, providing the flexibility to run smaller batch sizes. 

Application example

Castings PLC, an iron castings and machining group based in the UK, was looking to increase its machine output and flexibility, with the aim to produce up to 2,500 different components. 

Since then, the company has installed 21 ABB robot cells to assist in the loading and unloading of grinding machines used in the manufacture of iron and iron alloy castings for the automotive industry. One robot is also used for grinding. 

The robot cells are now working 24 hours a day, programmed to handle 33 part types. The cells can be easily changed over to handle different parts in less than 10 minutes without having to change any hard tooling on the infeed. This provides the opportunity to introduce first time run parts quickly and easily with potentially limitless variants possible in the future, both future-proofing production and increasing flexibility.

Furthermore, the company’s output has increased by 50 percent with half the labour previously required; one person can handle four machines compared to two previously. Its cycle times have also been reduced by 50 percent. 


If companies would like twice as much productivity from machines, a reduced production piece price, less wastage of materials, increased competitiveness, the ability to produce more and a safer, more attractive working environment then implementing automation in the machine tending industry should definitely be a viable option.  

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