10 More Reasons To Buy Robots

22 January 2009

Stirling Paatz of UK based Barr & Paatz suggests why you should shake hands with new technology.

Three years ago, I wrote an article putting forward ‘10 good reasons to invest in robots’. Since then, the worldwide stock of operational industrial robots has risen to the one million mark (not necessarily as a result of my article!) and there is now a strong trend toward flexible automation in many non-automotive markets, with food & beverages, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, life sciences, photovoltaic and packaging sectors all increasing their robot investments. Nor is the global economic downturn apparently set to trigger a sharp decline, since factors like higher quality standards, environmental and safety regulations, energy and infrastructure costs, and the need for more flexible production are all stimulating demand for robotic technology, with shipments expected to grow by around 4 per cent annually between 2009 and 2011.

Over the last three years, technology has moved on apace, market conditions and attitudes have changed, employment trends have fluctuated and even ethical considerations have altered, so perhaps it’s time for me to offer 10 more reasons to buy robots:

1. Even better value
Expressed in 1990 prices, the cost of a typical industrial robot has fallen from a index of 100, to 54 now, while over the same period labour costs have almost doubled. Nor does that take into account vastly improved technical performance, which would reduce the price index to just 22. What’s more, since design patents ran out, Delta tripod robots are now getting cheaper, with models due out this year that will cut costs and increase payloads considerably, opening up a whole new field of applications.

2. Still more choice
Technically speaking, payloads are getting bigger, accuracy and repeatability are becoming better, speeds faster, end-of-arm tooling and other peripherals more varied, while the machines themselves are smaller and more powerful, with a wide variety of working envelopes, and the overall choice of make, models and kinematics is much wider. Right now, 6-axis Articulated robots are most popular, with 66% market share, followed by SCARA (11 per cent) and Cartesian/Gantry (7 per cent) models, but expect Deltas to make big inroads into high speed picking applications in food processing, packaging, electronics and life sciences.

3. No ethical dilemmas
Time was, robots were seen as taking work from humans, but they have always mainly undertaken routine, tedious and highly repetitive tasks, often in hazardous or noisy environments, which today’s workers are less likely to accept. In a higher waged economy like ours, low value processes can be killed off by labour costs, so automation is essential and can actually help save qualified jobs. Moreover, while robots perform labour-intensive tasks, personnel can focus their intelligence and skills on other more demanding processes.

4. Cut operating costs
Robots don’t need comfortable conditions in which to operate, eliminating the need to satisfy minimum heat and lighting standards, so you can cut energy bills and also save on the provision of personal safety equipment. The automated handling and manipulation of parts and materials for machine tools, or the robot-assisted moulding and demoulding of plastic parts, increase the number of hours factories can stay operational, without needing manpower or paying overtime. Greatly reduced process cycle times, due to the higher speeds robots can achieve, also deliver cost and lead-time benefits.

5. Reduce scrap & rejects
Because robots can be programmed to carry out drilling, welding, painting, gluing, picking and other tasks time and time again, with extreme precision, you can achieve consistently high quality output. Robots work tirelessly without any loss of performance, which minimises the scrap and rejects that result from inconsistent processing. Suspended over a packaging line and equipped with a vision system, a robot can also detect or remove downgraded or defective products from a high speed conveyor, at the same time placing items in their correct orientation, again reducing scrap rates.

6. Save valuable workspace
Today’s robots have ever diminishing work envelopes, combined with several degrees of mobility, which mean that unless you can persuade workers to suspend themselves over processing lines, robots can go where humans can’t, mounted on the ceiling, on an adjacent wall, in confined spaces alongside flying machinery. With the cost of manufacturing floorspace at a premium, often with little room to expand anyway, robotics’ space saving characteristics are a definite bonus. What’s more, features like collision avoidance allow robots to be installed close together and production lines reduced in scale.

7. Install in existing lines
Robots don’t have to be standalone workcells, they can be integrated into new and existing production lines. Thanks to their compact dimensions and overhead mounting, modern Delta robots can be inserted into modular process and packaging machinery and synchronised with the rest of the automation process, using a common motion/logic control system. Similarly, many critical manual procedures in plastic demoulding and machine loading applications can be fully automated, using either a compact 4-axis SCARA robot or, for more complex procedures, a 6-axis Articulated machine.

8. Ease recruitment worries
Recruiting dependable skilled and semi-skilled staff is always a concern; on the other hand, robots will work continuously without complaint, don’t require sickness or social welfare provisions, and can carry out monotonous work and heavy lifting without succumbing to repetitive strain injuries. Equipped with special end-of-arm tooling and vision systems, robots can carry out detailed or delicate work that humans simply cannot do, at higher speeds and with greater precision, and often work in clean rooms or hazardous areas where human intervention is a problem. Like good workers, robots can also be re-skilled, re-equipped and transferred to another department.

9. Britain is lagging behind
For reasons industry experts find hard to fathom, Britain is seriously lagging behind other manufacturing nations in the robotics revolution. While sales of industrial robots across Europe rose by 15 per cent last year, the UK investment actually went down. In terms of robots per 10,000 people in manufacturing, we are not only behind giants like Japan and Germany, we give best to Italy, Spain, Sweden and France; even robot sales to Central and Eastern Europe surged by over 66 per cent. Inevitably that means we’re losing competitive edge on the global market.

10. Expertise is at hand
Conversely, there is plenty of implementation expertise in this country, thanks to specialist robot integrators like ourselves. Much of our design, programming and commissioning work is for one-off installations, for brand new processes and high tech start-up enterprises, which means we’re used to facing fresh challenges and applying cutting edge technology. We ourselves have installed workcells and processing lines in such areas as life sciences, packaging, electronics, engineering, palletising, automotive components, electronics and contact lenses, gaining know-how that is transferrable to other processes, so the applications skills are definitely there once you’ve taken the step.

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