Automation: a challenge and an opportunity

The automating of processes in manufacturing and other industries
continues apace, and robot sales have never been higher. Brent Balinski talked
to spokespeople from three Australian Packaging and Processing Machinery
Association 
member companies about
some recent trends.

In
manufacturing and elsewhere, the drive for higher levels of automation is
undeniable.

“Demand
for ALL types of robots is on the way up,” explained Bill Saylav, Engineering
Manager at JMP Engineering, when Manufacturers’ Monthly asked about
demand for increasingly popular lightweight robots.

Automation
has been a hot topic this year especially, featuring in debates about growing
economic inequality
and efforts to completely
automate container terminals
.

According
to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR),
worldwide purchasing of industrial robots has never been more robust.

The
IFR’s figures show
about 179,000 robots were sold globally last year.

The
standout country was China, buying nearly one in five of all robots sold.
Combined, the next four most robot-happy countries, Germany, Japan, USA and
Korea accounted for half of the total market.

Asia/Australia
stood out as the leading region overall. A regional increase in installations
of 18 per cent – to roughly 100,000 – was seen.

In
Australia, the rush to robotise was even used recently to explain an increase
in joblessness after the ABS showed
unemployment creeping up to a 12-year high
.

Automation
is, according to shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, among the “greatest unspoken
challenges” in the national economy.

“There is a disconnect here,” he
said at the Financial Services Council annual conference earlier this month
.

“Productivity is going up but employment is not following to
the degree that it should.”

The jobs
that automation has replaced aren’t limited to those in logistics and
factories, with plenty of examples including in agriculture, trading,
and even journalism.

In
manufacturing the unavoidable need to automate to stay competitive has been
used to explain the decline
in demand for lower-skilled jobs
, and the overall
decrease in manufacturing employment
.

As
reported earlier this year, recent demand in Australia for robot assistance has been strong, with one company
telling this magazine earlier this year that units sold increased from 690 to
1214, “a
76 per cent jump from 2011 to 2012
.”

Are
some workers worried?

“In
short, YES,” Stuart Shaw, Innovations Manager, Machinery Automation &
Robotics, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“Production
line workers tend to have this view.”

Those
positive about the increase in automation say it’ll liberate employees from
tedious tasks.

“Robots
will free workers from repetitive tasks enabling them to move to more
interesting roles,” said Mark Emmett, Managing Director, HMPS.

Saylav
said there was some time to go until every production line role has been
replaced by a robot.

“We
can see that Australia still has a long way to go before it’s saturated by
total automation,” he said.

While
“ALL” types of robots are in increasing demand, there are some particular
trends that some are noticing among types of machines and segments of the
manufacturing industry.

According
to Emmett, the use of robots in food and beverage has doubled every year in the
last five.

Also,
“Robots are replacing conventional mechanical systems,” he told Manufacturers’
Monthly
.

Saylav
agreed that demand was particularly strong in the types of robots required in
food and beverage, in “mid- to high-speed” varieties.

“Australians
are definitely consuming more than ever before and expect the supermarket
shelves to be full at all times,” he explained.

Another
trend apparently in effect, pointed out by the IFR and others, is the need for
lightweight, particularly collaborative, robots.

The
CSIRO has pointed out
that these types of machines can offer productivity
and flexibility advantages while being safe to integrate into a production
line.

“Smaller,
lightweight robots are the fastest growing robotic segment,” said Emmett.

Shaw
agreed.

“Interest
is increasing as the awareness and capabilities of lightweight robots is
disseminated,” he said.

“Interest
is escalating for collaborative robots that can work safely alongside humans.”

Collaborative
ability (including teachability), flexibility, safety and speed all come up in
conversations about automation trends.

“High
demands require high speeds,” said Saylav, adding that JMP had increased the
speed of its offerings in June.

“High
speeds [also] require high efficiency.”