As the world of manufacturing becomes more integrated, the role of robotics is changing the shape of the factory floor. Steven Impey takes a look at the effect it will have on the Australian workforce.
Depending on which literature the industry insider goes by, the impact that robotics will have on the factory floor of the future often splits its audience.
The rise of robots programmed to do a human worker’s job sounds daunting – the very thought of seeing the livelihoods of Australian manufacturing workers potentially cut from under them is itself a concern. Manufacturing jobs have been in a steady decline for several decades as the industry shifts into a different gear.
However, with more technologies now available on the market – and particularly robotics and artificial intelligence – many experts in the field, on home soil and overseas, are arguing an integrated workplace with man and machine is the beginnings of a revival.
Peter Bradbury, ABB’s sales manager for robotics, is among them. Speaking with Manufacturers’ Monthly, he explained how more small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) are showing interest in affordable automation.
“Over the last couple of years, we have seen more optimistic signs with a return of investment in manufacturing,” he said.
“A lot of that investment is primarily due to the sustained low of the Australian dollar and it is starting to increase levels of investment.
“This is something they call ‘re-shoring’ in America, where essentially business that was originally replaced by imports is returning to the Australian market.”
Importance of changing perceptions
Sectors leading the way include food and beverage, textiles and even plastics manufacturing. The “tyranny of distance”, as Bradbury puts it, is also playing a part in the change of tide – persuading more companies to manufacture at home rather than paying for shipping costs overseas.
“It’s quite likely that we will start to see more changes that we are already seeing in the pharmaceutical sector appear in the food industry – particularly with meat and the outbreak of certain diseases,” Bradbury said.
“All of that requires more automation to allow all that information to be stored all the way from the factory floor right through to the consumer.”
Amid a changing landscape, other areas will be pushed to adopt new technologies in production. Biopharmaceuticals, as a sector, is a prime example, where traceability has become an absolute requirement. From the design, packaging and coding of products to the time and place of manufacturing, a window of opportunity has opened.
However, changing misconceptions of automation appears to be an ongoing battle in Australia – even though industrial robotics are far cheaper than they were 20 years ago.
Shermine Gotfredsen, general manager for Universal Robots’ Southeast Asia and Oceania branch based in Singapore, touched on her experiences working with the Australian market.
“If we are talking about competitors in the market, we have to look at the overall picture and the long-term repercussions for the industry,” she said.
“What we are seeing in the Australian market is that, to stay competitive, companies are struggling to keep costs down and are, therefore, deciding to move overseas.”
While it is causing more jobs to be lost, Gotfredsen wants to show automation can actually help create jobs by optimising robotics in manufacturing.
“That’s what we believe in – to demonstrate how, with the implementation of robotics, we can create a cost-effective ecosystem,” she said.
Scepticism among Australian manufacturers
Universal Robots has just shy of 20,000 units in circulation globally although Australia makes up a very small piece of that pie.
“One reason is that there is not enough facilitation from the government to give access for this kind of technology,” Gotfredsen said.
“The other is the fact that awareness of the market isn’t at a high level.
“There are many manufacturers who are still not aware of such new technology, which isn’t helping the market to grow.
“We are also seeing a lot of scepticism and cautiousness around new technology and I think it is a case that companies like to wait to see how other people are going to react before making a decision.”
Australia’s automotive industry is still playing a part too, with some of its robotics technology being transferred to alternative sectors. In Australia, Bosch has been a manufacturer since 1954, and its automotive expertise has transferable technology.
Through training, Andrew Bartlett, general manager for Bosch Australia Manufacturing Solutions, believes the industry is showing more confidence in the role of robotics.
“Given that the automotive manufacturing industry in Australia will be effectively closing by the end of the year, our target was to look at our manufacturing industries in Australia and bring the automotive style, rigour and process technologies to other fields,” Bartlett said.
“With the onsite capabilities at Bosch, we can support our own manufacturing as a core priority but also grow the business to support other manufacturers, be that as a consulting service or the supply of turnkey production lines.”
Robotics is key to growth
How does this affect the individual on the floor? As part of Bosch’s commitment to advanced manufacturing, Bartlett believes companies are beginning to understand the relevance robotics has to keep their business working.
“It depends on how mature they are and whether they already have automation in their facilities,” Bartlett said.
“Some of our customers, who already use a different flavour of automation, will need basic training only while there are others we have to work with more closely, to deliver something they can use independently, on an autonomous level.
“Some of the smaller companies are quite mature in how they want to grow their businesses and they do see that automation is key.”
There is a brave new world available to Australian manufacturers and it seems some sectors have taken that leap.
“I guess we have a good window on what is happening worldwide at Bosch and I can say that, in the industrial robotics arena, Australia is advancing quite well and I would say it isn’t too far off where the rest of the world is,” Bartlett continued.
“When it comes to new robotic technology and collaborative robots, it has started to pick up [recently] – and, not necessarily in automation but say in Industry 4.0, we are very much at the formative phase.
“What direction we decide to take that in Australia is still a work in progress.”
Donald Farmer, former vice president for innovation and design for the American business intelligence and visualisation software supplier Qlik, discussed the impact the Internet of Things (IoT) is showing within the manufacturing industry in Australia. He spoke about the importance of human and robotic interaction in the manufacturing equation.
“The most telling optimisations perform right through the supply-chain, from manufacturing and even to shipping,” Farmer said.
“That requires a much wider view of the data so, while you can get great optimisation from robotics and IoT, you need a much wider scope if you want to apply artificial intelligence.
“That requires you to integrate data across the entire process and that requires, not only human insight, but also tools capable of making that sort of synopsis.”
Human vs. artificial intelligence
Human intelligence is innovative, which is an important aspect for any company to be able to see opportunities in the marketplace and to make successful business decisions.
“Most well-automated manufacturers I look at now have some form of predictive maintenance,” Farmer said. “They collect a lot of data from the robots on the production line and can tell when a machine might need to be repaired.
“What [robotics] can’t tell is the impact repairing that machine will have on upcoming orders and the profitability of those orders, so it takes a wider scope of data to make predictions in the context of the business.
“What a machine is not capable of doing is looking at or prioritising orders, which is a very human decision.”
If Australia wants to stay internationally viable, domestic producers need to become more productive and automation has a strong case for the job.
Like every other advancement in industry, Bradbury is confident Australian manufacturing can grow with robotics by its side.
“I think we are going to see more up-take in robotics – particularly in collaborative robots – over the next few years and we will also see them used in different places, including logistics,” Bradbury said.
“It is a continuation of Australia turning from a country with a high number of labourers and manufacturers into a service industry. While you are moving production back into the country, it is continually becoming more automated.
“That does mean you aren’t seeing so many manufacturing personnel on the factory floor but rather in high-level and high-paid jobs in the servicing industry.”