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As American businesswoman and technology expert Clara Shih has said, “rather than wringing our hands about robots taking over the world, smart organisations will embrace strategic automation use cases.” Such use cases point to the pivotal role of automation in revolutionising the manufacturing landscape, with major improvements of efficiency, precision and productivity. As Shih suggests, such automation will “free up time [for] the types of tasks that humans are uniquely positioned to perform.”
With that said, let’s take a deeper dive into the automation uses, real-world examples and trends that are emerging within the manufacturing sector.
From machine tending to welding and product assembly to packaging, an array of manufacturing processes can benefit from automation. The use of automated technologies for such repetitive and labour-intensive tasks frees up human workers to focus on more strategic and creative aspects of production.
The automotive sector provides the most obvious example when it comes to the automation of manufacturing processes. Motor manufacturers were among the first to use industrial robots and sensor technology to assemble parts with all-new levels of productivity and efficiency. However, the benefits have increasingly been realised in other areas of manufacturing.
Here are some other examples of automated manufacturing processes:
With such a wide variety of applications, automated technologies can make a big difference in manufacturing cost-effectiveness and scalability.
Aiming to help our members and end users make better technology decisions, we’ve featured various examples of automated solutions in the Machinery Update magazine. For instance, the July/August 2023 edition (page 17) focused on the launch of Interoll’s high-performance conveyor platform (HPCP) as a solution to the special requirements of the courier-express parcel (CEP) market. The automated conveyor allows for the rapid and precise sortation of goods including cardboard boxes, small packages and padded envelopes. Capable of handling a throughput of up to 10,000 units per hour, enables the mass delivery of variously shaped and weighted packages.
That same edition also highlighted the collaboration between Spiroflo, Cablevey and Scottish Oats, in developing a conveyor belt system that would increase productivity and food safety (page 26). The enclosed conveyor belt system effectively prevents contamination in the delivery of the rolled oats to the filler. Fitted with an inspection camera monitoring system, it can be efficiently cleaned with the dry wiper disc system for the removal of any fine particles.
These innovations have also been featured in Machinery Update:
The integration of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics are among the automotive trends transforming manufacturing. These technologies are allowing for great improvements in the monitoring of industrial equipment, prediction of maintenance issues, and assurance of quality control. Able to perform mundane and repetitive tasks with exceptional speed and accuracy, such technologies allow human workers more opportunities for the types of strategic and creative activities that make for long-term business success.
It’s also becoming more common to see human workers carrying out tasks with the support of cobots (collaborative robots). Designed with a focus on precision and safety, these cobots can significantly boost the efficiency of such processes as assembly and welding. They are being integrated with Internet of Things (IoT) devices for real-time monitoring and data-driven decision-making in Industry 4.0.
Of course, there are challenges when it comes to realising the benefits of automated technology. First of all, there’s the concern that robots are coming to take people’s jobs. This can lead to a reluctance to invest and work alongside technologies which would otherwise drive significant manufacturing improvements. Issues such as the initial cost, the need for workforce training, and system integration complexities are also slowing adoption.
There’s an obvious need for investment in employee training and the fostering of an innovation culture if such challenges are to be overcome. This will mean up-skilling the current generation of manufacturing workers, as well as developing educational pathways for younger people. It will involve the equipping of human workers with the ability to oversee and ensure the optimal use of automation. Rather than making the immediate switch to lights-out automation, organisations should be looking to make gradual investments with the benefits being realised over time.
Workers will ideally be involved in technological decision-making processes, with the benefits being emphasised for collective buy-in. Concerns over cost can also be addressed by highlighting the expected return on investment (considering the boost in productivity). Organisations should highlight their consideration of ethical issues, with clear guidelines being followed to avoid job displacement and ensure responsible AI use. This will be essential if the UK manufacturing sector is to be successful in the face of global competition.
Looking ahead, we are likely to see such trends as the development of autonomous systems, 3D printing, and smart manufacturing. As emphasised by Accenture’s Technology Vision 2024 report, this will likely involve the humanising of such technologies so that they are more intuitive by design and nature. We can expect the continued evolution from automation to augmentation, with the wider availability of powerful transformative technologies.
As can be seen in the movement of manufacturing operations back to North America, automation allows localised businesses to limit the risks and dependencies on international supply chains. This scenario is also likely to be seen in the UK, with businesses taking the opportunity to reshore and realise the benefits of increased automation. This will have positive impacts in terms of improving logistics, reducing employment costs, and ensuring more ready access to local markets. Benefits such as improved safety and greater freedom to focus on value-adding tasks are also likely to make a difference when it comes to attracting talent in an ever-shrinking pool.
These benefits of automation are sure to be more widely realised:
In summary, an increasing number of organisations are looking to integrate automated technologies in the aim of realising benefits such as improved efficiency and productivity. Such technology is making a difference to worker and customer satisfaction, with rapid returns on investment. However, there’s clearly more to be done if the UK is to compete with more heavily automated countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. Manufacturers must embrace automation, exploring the benefits of emerging technologies and investing in research and development for sustainable, efficient and competitive manufacturing.
As the leading trade association for automation suppliers and technology end-users, Automate UK has a key role to play. We encourage members and non-members alike to share automation stories and collaborate for manufacturing innovation. Join us as we present platforms for the discussion of manufacturing and its developing synergy with automation.
Have your say and take part in our survey – ‘Navigating challenges, embracing opportunities’. We’ll be bringing together the most up-to-date and relevant analysis of the UK’s robotics, automation, processing and packaging machinery, plus industrial vision industries today here.