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How important are robots for industry? Look no further than the automotive sector, the first to embrace the use of industrial robots, to discover the contribution they can make to manufacturing.
Recent figures from the International Federation of Robotics show that over one million robots are now used in vehicle manufacturing, and around 3 million are operational in all industries. Other than automotive, key sectors using robotic systems are electronics, metals, machinery, plastics, chemicals and food.
As robotics and artificial intelligence have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, they’re making an ever greater contribution to manufacturing and production.
Business owners, employees, consumers and the economy all benefit from the plethora of opportunities, with strong industry support provided by the British Automation and Robotic Association (BARA), part of the Automate UK Group.
This talk from BARA Chairman, Mike Wilson, puts those opportunities into context:
Industrial robots deliver benefits across multiple operations and processes. Robot advantages and capabilities are growing all the time in functions such as:
With improvements in control systems, programming and the deployment of AI and machine learning, robotic automation is set to benefit manufacturers and processing organisations far into the future.
The improvements over manual and mechanical working are fundamental, covering profitability, environmental impact and working conditions for staff.
How do robots vs humans compare? Human error has long been a feature of manufacturing. If human workers are required, a certain number of errors are inevitable and need to be factored into an organisation’s operating model.
Robotic systems, by contrast, are by nature both accurate and consistent in their output. Error and subsequent waste are dramatically reduced, while accuracy and consistency are both improved.
The advantages of robotics include an inherent precision and repeatability of operations. This results in a consistently high-quality finish for every product.
Robots eliminate the problems associated with tiredness, distraction and the effects of repetitive and tedious tasks, besides simple human error.
A human worker must take breaks and work set shifts. Robots need no such breaks. As machinery can be programmed to work continuously, production can continue around the clock, boosting productivity proportionately.
The automotive industry, for example, has seen a 50% increase in productivity through robotic process automation (RPA) since 2009.
By using robots, you can achieve a substantial reduction in wastage. You will have more products finished (on the first run) to the standard required by your customers and reduce the amount of breakages and waste produced because of poor quality or inconsistent finishing.
With products being produced to such a high level each time, you’ll gain greater yields.
Robots in industry can also add flexibility to your production line. Once programmed, they can easily switch between processes, helping you to meet changes in product design or customer demand with a minimum of effort.
Some may have worried that jobs would be lost to robots due to automation. In fact, the opposite is true. By automating monotonous and manual tasks, humans are now being elevated to roles where their skills and abilities can be used and developed.
With the development of new skills comes career progression, better income and more reasons to stay with the current employer.
What’s more, robots in manufacturing have the added benefit of creating new roles that didn’t previously exist. Robots will need servicing, software developers, and programmers. Other experts will be required to keep the automated production line running smoothly.
The high precision demanded by today’s industrial processes requires the highest levels of skill and training. With highly skilled manual workers becoming harder to find and more expensive to employ, robots can provide an ideal alternative.
Once programmed for your process, robots are ready to begin work with none of the costs associated with recruitment or ongoing training. Robots can also offer greater flexibility, both in terms of work patterns and the ability to handle different production tasks.
With robots, you can improve working conditions for your staff. They’ll no longer have to work in dusty, hot or hazardous environments. In addition, by teaching them how to use robots they can learn valuable programming skills and do work that is more stimulating and challenging.
Working on a production line can be incredibly risky, with health and safety challenges a serious concern for employers and employees alike. One of the benefits of robots in manufacturing is the chance to remove human workers from harm’s way, elevating them to more meaningful roles within the company.
Robots in factories can take over unpleasant, arduous or health-threatening tasks that may be currently undertaken by manual workers. By using robots, you’ll decrease the likelihood of accidents caused by contact with machine tools or other potentially hazardous production machinery or processes.
They can also help to eliminate ailments associated with repetitive or intensive processes, such as repetitive strain injuries (RSI) and vibration white finger (VWF).
Robots in the workplace enable you to reduce direct and overhead costs, making a dramatic difference to your competitiveness. Take energy for example. With no requirement for minimum lighting or heating levels, robots offer a great opportunity to cut your energy bills.
Current estimates point to a potential saving of 8% for every 1ºC reduction in heating levels. While savings of up to 20% can be achieved by turning off unnecessary lighting.
Using robots to achieve faster, more efficient production lines can help reduce the capital costs associated with inventory and work in progress. By moving products faster in production, your business can better predict the production rate, ensuring a fast and efficient service is delivered.
To survive in a competitive and fast-changing industrial landscape and to remain profitable and competitive, it’s necessary to stay abreast of technological developments and master them ahead of your competitors.
History shows us that those who adopt technology earlier are those who survive longer, whilst those who fail to innovate ultimately end up closing their doors. Robotics and automation are serious business, and now is the time to act.
Robots can be mounted in multiple configurations to help you save highly valuable space in manufacturing areas. They can also be programmed to work in confined spaces, so you do not lose valuable floor space.
While the advantages of robots are far-reaching, a move to robotic systems has to be made with a full understanding of what is involved. The disadvantages of robots must be taken into account.
Robots can involve significant capital expenditure. As BARA’s Mike Wilson says, UK industry has been warier of longer-term investment, and the attitude to investment in new technology should be put under the spotlight.
The good news is that prices are dropping as robotic systems evolve, and the technology is coming within reach for small companies as well as enterprise level businesses. As with all equipment costs, the investment has to be measured against future benefits.
Advanced technologies require highly specialist skills for implementation, maintenance and core programming. As the robotics industry grows, more trained specialists have joined the workforce, but at the same time, there are more and more installations to look after.
It’s important to understand how your robot system will be installed, set up and maintained. Your staff are also likely to need specialist training, and businesses must be aware of the availability of programmes either from robot suppliers or third-party organisations.
One aspect of automated systems which is of great significance to businesses is programming. Programming can take place in multiple ways as described in our guide to Robot Programming Methods.
It relies on using a variety of programming languages. But for the majority of robots, easy-to-use interfaces (teach pendants) have replaced complex coding which allows operators to be trained more quickly and to manage robots without the need for expert support.
One area of expertise which is vitally important for successful robot projects is integration with existing equipment. In partnership with A3 Robotics, BARA launched the Robot Integrators’ Certification Scheme which standardises the quality of integrators’ work, including safety controls.
You can apply to have your operating procedures independently verified by an approved A3/BARA auditor. This includes rigorous onsite testing to ensure that designated robot integrators have the appropriate knowledge and capability to carry out an integration.
Robotic systems are not maintenance-free and need servicing and downtime. Getting realistic details from robot suppliers is a critical part of planning and budgeting for implementation.
A further barrier to overcome is resistance to change within the organisation. Objections can come from any level of a business, and if they arise, they need to be addressed by communicating the benefits of change. This includes the opportunities for operational staff.
Automation and robotics are transforming manufacturing production lines, with an array of benefits for business owners, employees, consumers and the economy at large.
The British Association of Robots and Automation (BARA) is the organisation at the forefront of championing these developments. Not only providing a voice for the robotics and automation industries and convening with government, industry, financial and academic institutions, BARA offers expert support to the end-user community.
This organisation’s expertise and support make it one of the leading names in robotics and automation.
It’s estimated that ‘Industry 4.0’ technology will add £450 billion to the UK economy over the next 10 years. Robotics and automation are expected to account for £180 billion of this sum.
What’s more, significant government support, pledging investment and grants for businesses that adopt these new technologies, make it easier for the Manufacturing industry to grasp the opportunities offered by robotics.
Find out more about your next step for robotics systems by exploring solutions from BARA members, including:
You’ll find summaries of what each BARA Member offers, with full contact details and links to their websites.
For further information about robots and automation, also see our Expert Advice page with topics ranging from Explained, and Introduction to Industrial Robots to Identifying Opportunities for Automation.
You can also watch a short YouTube video about BARA’s involvement with the Automation UK event from June 2023: