BARA Chairman, George Thompson, looks at the UK’s place in the global adoption of robotics, and explains how improving the position can bring tangible benefits to the manufacturing sector.
I often get asked why the UK needs to increase its level of automation. It is simply because we need to be more competitive on the world stage. I do not usually like to quote facts and figures; however, the latest report from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) does not paint a good picture for UK manufacturing. The measurement that the IFR uses is the number of robots installed per 10,000 employees – the UK now ranks 24th. That is behind countries like Denmark (10th), Austria (14th), Canada (19th), Slovakia (20th) and the Czech Republic (21st), all of which have a smaller population than the UK. If we include the automotive sector, the UK scores 101 robots per 10,000; however, if we exclude the automotive sector, it is a depressing 53/10,000. The world average is 126 robots per 10,000 employees, so the UK is way behind the rest of the pack.
So how can we change this? Simply put, we need to automate more. We all know that implementing automation can improve efficiency, but there is a lot more that we can look at to improve the situation, especially now that our energy costs are spiralling out of control. If you have read one of my articles before, you may well remember where I mentioned using automation to meet sustainability goals and, before that, where I mentioned connected manufacturing being used for line balancing. To save you looking back, line balancing is when the machines talk to each other to call for more product or to hold off because that part of the line is over-saturated with product. Why is this important? It saves backing a line up, potentially causing quality issues on time-sensitive production, but it can also help with controlling processes to ensure that energy is saved whenever possible.
By implementing a connected manufacturing strategy, it is also possible to analyse the data output from the line control systems to determine where additional time or energy savings can be achieved. If the data shows that one part of the process is the bottleneck, then running all equipment upstream of that process at full speed is pointless, only to have it running at a start-stop pace. Think about it as if you were stuck in traffic. It is far more fuel efficient to keep a slow, steady pace and not stop-start to move a few hundred yards at a time. The same applies to automation – smooth robots are efficient robots, plus it saves energy as well as wear and tear on the equipment.
It doesn’t matter if you have one robot or a hundred; the theory is the same. Robots that are fed by a manual station – or that feed a manual station, the same principles can be implemented. What I mean by this is that the manual stations will often dictate the speed of the automation, especially when it is break or lunchtime. One way of resolving this issue would be to use robots to pick and load the manual stations, possibly by making use of a vision system.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we should eliminate the human operatives in favour of automation; however, by implementing automation, it would free those operatives up to perform more value-add applications. This will generate better jobs, increase job satisfaction, and hopefully increase employee retention.
If you would like to start your automation journey but don’t know where to start, I would highly recommend visiting the BARA website (www.ppma.co.uk/bara), where we have outlined several topics under the Expert Advice section to give some initial information.