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Robots are key to UK manufacturing success

04 May 2011

The manufacturing sector has been shown to be one of the fastest growing sectors of the UK economy, helping the nation's recovery from recession. Buoyed by encouraging results from a recent BARA survey, Barry Weller suggests that robots will have an important role keeping this progress on track

The UK manufacturing industry faces a plethora of challenges in its efforts to regenerate, but without doubt one of the most significant is the need to operate in high-wage economy yet produce goods that are competitive with those from low-wage regions of the world. Clearly, as UK manufacturers cannot match the pay rates of some overseas competitors, the only viable solution is to reduce the labour content in UK-manufactured products.

It's not too difficult to see that this means making the maximum possible use of automation, However, just how that automation will be implemented must be carefully considered in the light of a second important requirement in today's manufacturing sector - the need for flexibility.

It was once satisfactory to build custom-engineered automated production lines dedicated to a particular type and style of product. At that time there would be reasonable confidence that the plant could be used without major changes for five years or longer, time enough to recoup the set-up investment.

Today's product life cycles are, however, typically much shorter, so production lines in most areas of manufacturing must now be flexible enough to adapt easily and inexpensively to the regular introduction of new products or significant redesigns.

Fortunately, flexibility is one of the major benefits offered by industrial robots, as they are essentially general-purpose tools that can be readily adapted for new tasks simply by reprogramming them. Robots are, therefore, the ideal basis for many modern manufacturing automation systems. With this in mind, it might be expected that robots would have been enthusiastically embraced by UK businesses, but the reality has been rather different.

In fact, UK manufacturers have been slow in their uptake of robot technology, lagging well behind their competitors in many other developed nations including France, Italy, Spain and Sweden as well as the more obvious examples of Germany and Japan. There is, however, some evidence that this situation is changing. A recent survey by BARA (the British Automation and Robotics Association) reports that in the first two quarters of 2010, UK robot sales grew by 55% compared with the figures for 2009.

Interestingly, BARA notes that most of this growth has come not from the automotive industry, where the use of robots is well established, but from the food and beverage sector, and from the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors. This suggests that a wider cross-section of UK manufacturers is starting to appreciate the benefits that robots can provide.
While these developments are heartening, there is still a long way to go, since BARA also reports that the UK is far from being alone with its current surge of investment in robots.

Sales are, in fact, increasing in almost every country; worldwide growth of around 27% is predicted for 2010, with particular strong growth in China, Korea and other South East Asian countries. Clearly the UK's competitors are not standing still in the quest for efficiency and automation.

Possibly this is incentive enough for those businesses that are striving to grow and to enhance their competitive position but are still hesitant about investing in robots. Just in case it isn't, let's briefly review the major benefits that modern robots have to offer.

Modern robots combine speed with accuracy, making them suitable for use in even the most demanding of high-volume production applications. And, unlike human employees, robots can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they never take holidays! Production lines incorporating robots can, therefore, be operated for whatever hours are necessary to satisfy customer demand and to get the best possible return on investment in the production plant.

There is another benefit that is often not fully appreciated - robots are not especially fussy about their working conditions. This means that, in many cases, big economies can be made on the amount of heating and lighting that would be required if human workers were employed to carry out similar tasks. This not only results in lower energy bills, but also in reduced carbon footprint.

Compact design is another characteristic of modern robots, which means that using them can save valuable space on the factory floor. Often they can be used in areas adjacent to fast moving machinery where a human operator would not be allowed to work unless expensive guarding and other safety features were provided. It's worth noting that today's robots are also suitable for incorporation in existing production lines.

Then there are the issues of reliability and consistent performance. Because the best of modern robots incorporate modern technologies like brushless ac servomotors, they have very long service lives and require little maintenance. In addition, when used in conjunction with absolute position encoders, these servo systems ensure precise and repeatable operation. Scrap and reject rates are thus minimised, once more contributing to increased efficiency and reduced costs.

A matter of ethics?
Some companies still have ethical concerns over the use of robots as they are, more than other form of automation, seen as displacing human operators. In truth, however, robots almost always do repetitive tedious tasks for which it is always understandably difficult to recruit human employees.

And there's another issue. If human operators are used for these menial tasks and are rewarded with even the most modest rate of pay, there's a high probability that the goods produced will be less competitive than those produced on robot lines. This could easily lead to the business shrinking, with a loss of jobs, rather than growth. There are, therefore, sound reasons for arguing that the deployment of robots actually protects jobs.

Modern robots are affordable, cost-effective in operation, easy to install and set up, versatile, reliable and efficient. They are the perfect choice for a huge range of manufacturing operations in almost every sector - not just the automotive sector with which they are most closely associated.

If UK manufacturing industry is to make the most of its current opportunities for growth, which are the best in decades, then it might do worse than embrace robot-based automation.

Barry Weller is with Mitsubishi Electric


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