COVID-19: what lessons can manufacturing learn?


For many manufacturers the Coronavirus pandemic has been a wake-up call, as extreme challenges hit hard and hit fast. Chris Callander looks at the lessons that can be learned and how manufacturers can better prepare themselves for unforeseen events in the future.

Flour and its shortage in the supermarkets was an excellent example of this. In a statement from its chief executive, the National Association of British & Irish Millers (nabim) explained that the ability of flour producers to get their product to the supermarket shelves was limited by packing capacity. Before panic buying set in, around two million 1.5Kg bags of flour were sold each week. As producers worked 24/7 to produce flour, there was only the capacity to pack approximately 3.5 to 4 million 1.5Kg bags. And this couldn’t meet the massively increased demand. The flour was there, as most of what is produced is sold in bulk to commercial customers. But there was not enough flexibility to get it to the supermarkets in the right format.

This is just one of many examples, and it’s safe to say that manufacturers will be looking at automation within their facilities from a new perspective, as we emerge from the pandemic start to look to the future. So I asked several automation suppliers and their representatives what lessons should be learned, and what considerations manufacturers taking a fresh look at automation need to take into account.

Ian Hensman, from Kawasaki Robotics’, highlighted the people aspect of the challenges manufacturers are facing, and how robotics can help overcome them.

“There’s no point in skirting around the issue: employees remain the most vital asset to all businesses in every sector, and the disruption caused by the COVID 19 outbreak has shown just how dependent UK manufacturing still is on people power. But report after report continues to confirm that for repetitive tasks, or those needing to be performed in hazardous environments, robots can still be the best, or only, way to get certain tasks done.

“With robots deployed, shop-floor productivity can remain largely untouched in the event of an outbreak. Robots and automation can allow individual manufacturing companies to remain largely unworried by restarting or recovering production, and more able to focus attention on the other aspects of their businesses which are conducted by people.”

Of course, many people cite robots as removing manufacturing jobs. Ian argues that that is not the case.

“In day-to-day, simple applications, robots and automation can massively boost productivity and therefore profit. Robots and automation systems are programmed to do it perfectly every time. Sure, the introduction of robots might displace workers from the production line, but we can show a substantial list of happy customers that are employing many more people now than they were before our robots arrived.

“Used in context and with careful contingency and continuity planning for the future, robots and automation can be the key to continued production during a people-related crisis, and a much swifter return to standard (or increased) production rates post-event for a more rapid recovery.”

One of the key enabling technologies for robotic automation is vision. Allan Anderson, Chairman of the UK Industrial Vision Association (UKIVA), explained how innovations in vision systems can help organisations to meet challenges like those we are facing today. He said: “The need for innovation and the contribution of vision to industrial automation has been brought into sharp focus during the coronavirus crisis. The need to keep critical industries running, often at increased capacity, with reduced workforce availability is made easier where vision systems are taking responsibility for automated inspection, often in conjunction with robot systems.

“There are already many robust vision technologies that are available to improve productivity and reduce reliance on human operators. High-speed data transmission standards such as Camera Link HS, CoaXPress, 5GBASE-T and 10 GigE, combined with continuous improvements in high-speed, high-resolution cameras enable quality inspections at ever-increasing speeds, providing the potential for increased manufacturing throughput.

“Rapidly maturing 3D imaging methods have broadened the scope for vision-guided robots for applications such as pick and place, palletising and depalletising, bin picking, packaging and automated applications in warehouses. Of course, deep learning methods will also make it much easier to automate classification processes of goods with lots of natural variation, such as fruit and vegetables, where there has been a large reliance on human input. The technology is already there, but needs more extensive deployment.”

Mark Williamson from machine vision technology provider STEMMER IMAGING, reiterated some of the points made by Ian Hensman.

“It has often been suggested that increasing the use of machine vision and other automation technologies in manufacturing industries will take jobs away from human operators. In reality, it allows employees to be redeployed in more productive areas of the manufacturing process.

“Producers who have invested more heavily in machine vision and robotics will have been less reliant on the workforce in direct production and will, therefore, have been better equipped to continue or even increase production through the current coronavirus pandemic.”

Mark also warned of the risks of not taking heed of the lessons being learned. He said: “Most vision systems are purchased through capital expenditure. In these difficult times, with pressure on cash flow, many capital expenditure budgets are being temporarily suspended. Some companies, however, recognising the benefits that vision can bring are pushing on with their purchases to be in a better position when things start to recover and if we experience a second spike in COVID-19 cases.

Stephen Hayes, Managing Director of Beckhoff Automation UK, highlighted the importance of resiliency and adaptability, which was demonstrated by the flour production situation.

“One of the core tenets behind automation and control technology is resiliency. Now more than ever, uncertain markets mean manufacturers benefit from being as agile and adaptable as possible to improve throughput, increase operational effectiveness and reduce production costs and strengthen margins. This is where modern control technology comes in.

“However, it’s vital that the right control system is chosen, which means consideration of systems from the data level through to the practical, integration level. At the data level, this means using systems that make use of highly efficient fieldbus technologies. For integration, we’ve found that one of the most overlooked aspects is the control cabinet footprint itself.

“Control panels can sometimes take up several metres of space in a production line and it is often the case among manufacturers that goals to reconfigure or expand production lines lead to an increasing number of mounted devices.

“Saving space in control panels with downsized components is, therefore, the way forward in cases like these. This is a challenge when the number of devices used in control panels is increasing, due to more advanced and more composite machine functionality.

“Coming out of a period of great uncertainty, many manufacturers will turn quickly to more control systems to find ways of optimising their production. Done hastily, this may hinder a company’s ability to be as agile as it could be. Taking a considered, calculated approach to optimising all facets of manufacturing production will be imperative in the months ahead.”

It is clear that industry has a lot to learn from the current situation. While we all hope we will never need to meet such extreme challenges again, the steps that manufacturers can take to make themselves better able to tackle them will have a wide range of benefits which will also bring rewards in less troubled times.


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