The robots are coming

Using robotics and automation in your manufacturing facility can help save time, improve safety and reduce production costs, which are all sound reasons to invest. So why are Australian manufacturing facilities slow to turn to these technologies to help their businesses? Sarah Falson writes.

Using robotics and automation in your manufacturing facility can help save time, improve safety and reduce production costs, which are all sound reasons to invest. So why are Australian manufacturing facilities slow to turn to these technologies to boost business?

According to automation technology provider, SAGE Automation communications and marketing officer, Rachael Oates, automation in manufacturing is no longer considered a new and risky investment.

“While technology is constantly evolving, the concept of automation in manufacturing is not new. The manufacturing sec tor has been a significant part of our business at SAGE for more than 15 years, and opportunities continue today,” she told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

Food and beverage and auto motive plants are way ahead of other manufacturing sectors when it comes to robotics and automation up-take, however all areas are beginning to under stand the benefits that these technologies can provide.

“All manufacturing sectors remain focussed on automation and in particular, the information that advanced automation systems can provide. For manufacturing operations looking for the high performance required to compete, time is money and with the real-time information provided by control systems, data can be gained and used quickly to identify problems and avoid downtime,” said Oates.

For ABB robotics account manager – manufacturing industries, Discrete Automation and Motion Division, Olivier Coquerel, many manufacturing businesses in Australia have already made the switch to robotised production lines – and this isn’t exclusive to those with more output.

“Even during last year’s financial crisis, the number of robots sold in this segment was up by 20% worldwide. The main reason is the volume and the diversity of products food companies need to handle, plus the fact that con sumers like changes (new products, new package etc),” he said.

“Robot automation is also very flexible and can accommodate quickly and without massive investment. Automotive is still the largest consumer of robots. Highly flexible bodyshops use up to 800 robots at once.”

Refreshing the industry

According to SMC Pneumatics national projects manager, Automation & Life Sciences, Bill Blyth, the development of new automation and robotics technologies is now the way forward.

“Automation is now considered the ‘norm’ for most manufacturing processes; the continual development of more innovative products and systems continues to refresh the available options,” he said. According to Blyth, safety and reducing overhead costs will remain important reasons for taking-up automation and robotics systems in the future.

SAGE Automation’s Oates agrees, citing reduced waste, along with the desire to under stand loss areas in the production cycle, as other reasons to invest in automation technology.

“The technology and data available through automation systems is ever-evolving but the core driver for implementing or enhancing an automation system remains as safety, product quality, efficiency and a basis for decision-making,” she said.

Reducing overhead costs caused by rising electricity prob lems is also a reason to invest.

“Energy management and associated energy saving initia tives now form a large part of the strategies employed by man ufacturers to reduce operating costs,” said SMC’s Blyth.

A robot future

In the future, robotics and automation will become more prevalent in manufacturing.

“We can expect to see robots and operators collaborating more closely. Physical guarding will disappear from factories and new products will enable opera tors and robots to work together without compromising safety,” said ABB’s Coquerel.

For SAGE Automation’s Oates, the next ten years will see manufacturers more closely complying with safety regulations and inter national standards.

SMC Pneumatics’ Blyth believes that an increasing population and dwindling resources will result in increased need for automation and robotics.

“As we move towards 2020, and our population expands, this will tax many of our resources. I believe we will continue to test the limits of many current automation processes. Emerging process technologies will ensure available products can be manufactured to even higher quality and with an increased product lifecycle,” he said.