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“It’s a race now”: Casting off the ‘Dirty, Dangerous & Dull’ with cobots

Author : Sophia Bell, Assistant Editor, DPA

27 July 2021

Connectivity's Assistant Editor, Sophia Bell, talked to Mark Gray, UK Country Manager at Universal Robots, about how automation can help address the problem of labour shortages in the wake of Brexit and COVID-19, the key benefits of cobots, and the race to remain competitive on the world stage.

The skills gap is one of the biggest problems facing industry today – and it has only been exacerbated by both Brexit and the pandemic. How can automation help to overcome this challenge?

As you rightly said, the post-Brexit, mid-pandemic world has put particular pressure on manufacturing companies, particularly SMEs, who haven’t got free access to available labour. We talk about the three ‘D jobs’ – the Dirty, Dangerous and Dull: if you can take these away from people and let them concentrate on more valuable tasks, the robots can take the strain and fill the gap that way. So, we see our robots as a way of empowering people.

Apart from helping to tackle the skills gap, how does automation help businesses to stay competitive, particularly during the current COVID-19 crisis? 

Automation will give you a fixed cost, whereas labour costs are only going to increase over the next few years. If you pay a certain amount of money for the first robot, after it’s paid for itself within about nine to 12 months, it’s earned enough to buy another robot for a different part of the process within another 12 months.

Furthermore, because robots are so repeatable, they can carry out tasks more efficiently than people, so you make less scrap. Robots can also work throughout the night – something that most human workers don’t want to do – which means they can increase your productivity.

So, those are the main benefits: increasing productivity, fixing your costs and, once the robot has paid for itself, earning you money.

The cobot market is set to grow substantially, with ABI Research recently predicting a 32.5 percent annual growth over the next decade. What advantages do cobots have over industrial robots?

Universal Robots was set up 15 years ago by three university professors, who conducted research into why industrial robots were difficult for small manufacturers to adopt. From the information that they gathered, they created the world’s first cobot.

We are a parallel stream of automation, so we don’t generally compete head to head with industrial robots, because they can’t work in the same workspace and do the tasks that we do – our cobots are flexible, can move around the factory, and have been designed to work next to people.

The industrial robot market will continue to grow; however, most high-intensity, high-speed processes that could be automated with an industrial robot have already been done. On the other hand, when you look at the labour gap and the manual processes that are still being done on the shop floor, collaborative robots have got a much bigger market available to them. 

Mark Gray, UK Country Manager at Universal Robots
Mark Gray, UK Country Manager at Universal Robots

According to your website, Universal Robots has sold more than 50,000 cobots globally. Can you give any examples of companies that have successfully implemented these cobots, and how this has affected their business?

About two and a half years ago, I met a company called AKF Garden Furniture, based in Lincolnshire. It had a fundamental problem: it’s a relatively small company of about 15 people and because of Brexit, two of its Polish employees had to go back to Poland. That left the company with a labour gap.

After trying for months to find their replacements, the company realised that it wanted to try and automate some tasks. So, it got two robots with sanders on them, which sand the garden furniture before it all goes to paint. That filled the labour gap and made better quality products because the robots have a more repeatable finish. It has also improved the work-life balance of the employee who works in that cell, as he’s not suffering from things like repetitive strain injury or carpal tunnel syndrome, from using sanders all day. AKF Garden Furniture has seen a real benefit, so much so that it bought two more robots for another cell and another two robots are being planned for another part of the plant. 

Due to the pandemic, businesses that have been struggling financially might be hesitant to invest in automation. What would you say to those companies?

Getting a capital expenditure budget together to buy something can be difficult, so we operate a lease scheme with a company called DLL. Instead of paying for it out of a capital budget, you can pay it out of an operational budget, where you’re paying for the robot monthly. Much like leasing a company car, at the end of that period, you can either buy that robot, give it back, or continue with the lease, so that opens up the possibility to have robots on the shop floor – without having a huge capital expense.

You offer free online collaborative robot training via your UR Academy. How does this help to upskill students and industry professionals?

There are eight different modules in this academy, which are aimed at people who’ve never seen a robot before. You’re not just following exercises; you’re putting programs into a robot virtually as you would in the real world. It’s very intuitive and it walks you through each of these processes at your own pace – and at the end, if you pass, you can print out a certificate. This gives you the gateway to go on to further stages of training: there are more free modules on the website, where you can carry out application training – things like palletising, machine tending and screw driving – and you can also book the main training at one of our authorised training centres. Therefore, for people to upskill, it’s a great way to get oriented in the basics of how the robots work and how to program them, so whenever a robot is put into a factory, anybody can learn how to do simple programming. 

In terms of filling the skills gap, do you think educating young people in this area will also play a big part? 

I feel passionate about getting young people into this – and there are schemes for this purpose all over the UK. For example, the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) has implemented cobots into Scottish colleges, so students can get access to the technology before they go out into the wider manufacturing world – and the AMRC and The Manufacturing Technology Centre do the same.

We need to train up the next generation of robot programmers because of the number of robots that will be used in manufacturing over the next five to 10 years. Think of it this way: if you were a kitchen fitter 15 to 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have used a battery screwdriver, you’d have put the screws in manually. Every kitchen fitter uses a battery screwdriver now. It’s the same in manufacturing: eventually, cobots will become like a tool that you’ll be able to use for different parts of the task, so the more people that can program them, the better. I think it’s a really exciting career opportunity for young people, because the sector is only going to grow, it’s never going to shrink.

The UK is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of implementing automation. What is holding us back, and what is the solution? 

I think that it’s two-fold: it’s always been difficult to get funding for new equipment in the UK, and with regards to training, not enough people are being exposed to new technologies when they come out. But these problems are now being addressed by things like the Manufacturing Technology Centre and the AMRC, so we’re making it much more widely known that these technologies are out there, and that people can have access to them.

Do you think Brexit will have a further adverse effect on the rate at which the UK can implement automation, or will it give us the push we need to cast off outdated work practices and embrace robotics?

I think Brexit is a catalyst, that has forced people to consider how they need to improve their manufacturing processes. Because it’s a race now: all the other countries in Europe and the rest of the world that do automate will have fixed costs, so we need to do the same – at the same rate – to be able to say that we’re competitive on the world stage. But the feedback we’ve had is that automation is starting to be implemented more and more, particularly due to COVID-19, as cobots can be used to provide socially distanced production lines. 

Finally, how do you think cobots will evolve and develop over the next few years?

There are some exciting developments with new products that are going into our UR+ scheme. All the devices are plug-and-play compatible, so you can put them into the robot, and when you move them from machine to machine, they automatically understand their environment and load their settings. That’s quite exciting because, although you can move robots around the factory now, you still need to program them according to their environment.

One of the things we’re seeing is our 6-axis robot arm being mounted on the back of a guided vehicle. Currently, if, for example, you’re attending processes in a laboratory, you have to employ a lab technician to take samples out of one process and put them into another, wait four hours, put them into another process, and so on. Now, we can have a completely mobile lab assistant where a robot on a guided vehicle takes the samples out of the machines. This means that you can shorten the time scale of diagnostic checks, for example, so that’s a really exciting area that is expanding in the UK.

Therefore, much like computers, we’re continually developing cobots, giving them more features and making them easier and easier to use.


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