With the full economic repercussions of a global pandemic still to come, now might not be considered the most auspicious time to size up significant capital expenditure for your business. But with the current upheaval and the uncertainty it brings, an investment in automation is exactly what historically cautious UK manufacturers should be looking at right now, according to ABB.
While the future may be less easy to predict than six months ago, it may open some unexpected new opportunities.
Taking the food industry as an example, during the peak of the pandemic UK media outlets reported on the empty shelves in the home-baking aisles of supermarkets. With production lines rigidly set up to channel just 4% of flour to smaller retail bags, manufacturers could not keep pace with demand. There was no shortage of capacity on the lines filling big bags for industrial bakeries. In an age where the consumer is accustomed to being king, the problem of shortages of products caused by inflexible production lines will need to be addressed by those brands wishing to enjoy their customers’ continued loyalty and satisfaction. Those that adapt the quickest and adapt their supply lines to meet changing circumstances will most likely be the ones that reap the rewards in future.
This is highlighted by the performance of brands which could shift quickly and decisively from retail to e-commerce channels. Many of the leading supermarkets saw their online sales rise during the lockdown period, with Tesco reporting a 48.5% increase in sales in the UK and Ireland.
If there is a key takeaway from the events of the past few months, it is that UK companies must adopt a mindset which moves away from the comfortable stability of the ‘old normal’ and instead prepares for the uncharted unpredictability of the ‘new normal’.
This is where robotic automation comes in. Unlike most insurance policies that get paid for but rarely used, robots can provide tangible returns from day one. A major benefit is their flexibility. Robotic automation on manufacturing and packing lines is programmable – and reprogrammable – enabling them to handle changes in the type and quantity of products, with the ability to operate around the clock if necessary.
With the growing simplicity afforded by developments in programming technology that enable even the least experienced operator to quickly get to grips with using and configuring a robot, investing in robotic automation can be key to achieving a production line that can be quickly adjusted to changing circumstances.
What the agri-food sector has been seeing this year, other areas of industry are likely to witness in the future. Today, the higher the level of automation in a factory, and the less reliant it is on manual operations, the better-positioned it will be for whatever lies ahead to meet variables levels of demand.
It is not only reduced labour costs and in-built flexibility which make a factory which has invested in robotic automation more competitive. With many sectors heavily dependent on temporary staff, there is always an increased risk of human error. For instance, in food & drink, faults such as contamination or mislabelling can lead to costly retailer returns and reputational damage if the product reaches the supermarket shelves.
Eliminating errors can be a critical benefit of automation in other ways. For food manufacturers handling high-value raw materials, replacing operations such as manual cutting with the robot-controlled alternative can dramatically improve yield and cut waste.
Health and safety, meanwhile, has always been a factor in deploying robots and collaborative robots (cobots), for example, as an alternative to the manual handling of heavy loads in an end-of-line setting.
Invest today, reap the rewards tomorrow
Ultimately the company that prepares for tomorrow will be the one that is most likely to succeed tomorrow. As this article highlights, there is already a long list of reasons why integrating robotic automation makes increasing sense for manufacturing stability in the future. That list is only going to get longer and more compelling.