Robots are a must for manufacturing success in the UK

24 February 2011

Barry Weller of Mitsubishi Electric looks at the role that robots are playing in helping to reduce production costs and enabling UK manufacturers to become more adaptable.

The biggest challenge facing the UK manufacturing industry today is the need to operate in a high-wage economy, yet produce goods that are competitive with those from low-wage regions of the world. The only viable solution is to reduce the labour content in UK-manufactured products.

Of course, this means making the best use of the available automation technologies. Its implementation must be carefully considered to ensure that its offers maximum production flexibility, to meet the need for shorter product lifecycles and frequent product changes and redesign.

Flexibility is one of the major benefits offered by industrial robots, as they can be readily adapted for new tasks by simply reprogramming them. Robots therefore offer an ideal basis for modern manufacturing automation systems. With this in mind, it might be expected that robots would have been enthusiastically embraced by UK businesses, but the reality has been rather different.

In fact, UK manufacturers have been slow in their uptake of robot technology, lagging well behind their competitors in many other developed nations including France, Italy, Spain and Sweden as well as the more obvious examples of Germany and Japan. There is, however, some evidence that this situation is changing. A recent survey by BARA (the British Automation and Robotics Association) reports that in the first two quarters of 2010, UK robot sales grew by 55% compared with the figures for 2009.

Interestingly, BARA notes that most of this growth has come not from the automotive industry, where the use of robots is well established, but from the food and beverage sector, and from the pharmaceutical and healthcare sector. This suggests that a wider cross section of UK manufacturers is starting to appreciate the benefits that robots can provide.

While these developments are heartening, there is still a long way to go, since BARA also reports that the UK is far from being alone with its current surge of investment in robots. Sales are, in fact, increasing in almost every country; worldwide growth of around 27% is predicted for 2010, with particular strong growth in China, Korea and other South-East Asian countries. Clearly, the UK’s competitors are not standing still in the quest for efficiency and automation.

Possibly this is incentive enough for those businesses that are striving to grow and to enhance their competitive position but are still hesitant about investing in robots. Just in case it isn’t, let’s briefly review the major benefits that modern robots, such as those in Mitsubishi’s extensive MELFA family, have to offer.

Modern robots combine speed with accuracy, making them suitable for use in even the most demanding of high-volume production applications. And, unlike human employees, robots can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Production lines incorporating robots can, therefore, be operated for whatever hours are necessary to satisfy customer demand and to get the best possible return on investment in the production plant.

There is another benefit that is often not always fully appreciated – robots can be used in enviornemtns that would not be tolerated by humans. This can allow for savings on heating and lighting costs. Compact design is another characteristic of today’s robots. They can also be used in areas adjacent to fast moving machinery, where a human operator would not be allowed to work unless expensive guarding and other safety features were provided. It is worth noting that today’s robots are also suitable for incorporation in existing production lines.

There are also issues of reliability and consistency to be considered. Because the best of modern robots incorporate modern technologies like brushless AC servomotors, they have very long service lives and require little maintenance. In addition, when used in conjunction with absolute position encoders, these servo systems ensure precise and repeatable operation. Scrap and reject rates are, therefore, minimised, once again leading to increased efficiency and reduced costs.

Finally, some companies still have ethical concerns over the use of robots as they are, more than other form of automation, seen as displacing human operators. In truth, however, robots almost always do repetitive tedious tasks for which it is always understandably difficult to recruit human employees.

And there’s another issue. If human operators are used for these menial tasks and are rewarded with even the most modest rate of pay, there’s a high probability that the goods produced will be less competitive than those produced on robot lines. This could easily lead to the business shrinking, with a loss of jobs, rather than growth. There are, therefore, sound reasons for arguing that using robots actually protects jobs rather than eliminating them.

Modern robots are affordable, cost-effective in operation, easy to install and set up, versatile, reliable and efficient. They are the perfect choice for a huge range of manufacturing operations in almost every sector – not just the automotive sector with which they are most closely associated – and experienced suppliers such as Mitsubishi are always ready to provide application advice and support.

In short, if the UK manufacturing industry is to make the most of its current opportunities for growth, which are better than it has seen for decades, it must be prepared to wholeheartedly embrace the unparalleled benefits that robot-based automation offers.

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