Cobots to help Australian businesses adapt

Sanofi has made use of UR’s technology for activities such as palletising to reduce repetitive strain injury for workers. Image: Universal Robots

Use of collaborative robots (cobots) are forecasted to grow in Australia. Manufacturers’ Monthly spoke to Universal Robots about how automation will improve production lines.

In Australia, cobots have traditionally found their largest markets in food and beverage and general manufacturing.

Human workers and cobots have worked side by side for duties such as machine tending, palletising, box filling and work assist for heavy payloads.

Universal Robots (UR) has recently also become heavily involved in the Australian pharmaceutical industry, where combining “the best of the human and the best of the robot” to improve efficiency has been a key business focus.

In 2019, UR grew six per cent, while growth for the global robotics industry flatlined, according to UR head of Southeast Asia and Oceania Darrell Adams.

“Australia last year actually saw a larger growth in percentage terms than UR as a company did,” he said.

Adams said cobots will form a significant increase in automation, where the COVID-19 pandemic has driven Australian manufacturers to adapt their production lines.

“We see ongoing growth in Australia, and we have high expectations for Australia in terms of what we expect to see for the next few years,” he said.

He also notes that there has been a “strong uptick” in automation for the domestic market even prior to COVID-19, even though the movement has been slow when compared to surrounding regions, Australia has seen a strong and steady growth.

“Asia’s uptake of robotics and automation is significantly stronger than what we’ve seen in Australia,” he said. “I find that quite interesting given a few things.”

“The cost of labour in Australia being a driver, traditionally, around robotics, is much higher than the other regions we see in Southeast Asia.”

UR has found that humans and robots working side by side has resulted in higher efficiency gains for manufacturers. Image: Universal Robots

Cobots in Australian manufacturing

UR’s overseas success with global healthcare company Sanofi in France, which has improved timeliness and cost, has been replicated in Australia.

Sanofi has made use of UR’s technology to achieve results such as reducing repetitive strain injury, taking people out of dirty dull and dangerous locations, and allowing humans to work right beside robots in a way that decreases weight and stress.

“We actually have a company in Australia that is very similar to Sanofi in terms of what they’re doing and have seen similar results in terms of the efficiency gains,” Adams said.

“The replication of this is actually very simple for end users. What Sanofi has done is not exceptional.”

The benefits of having humans and robots working side by side is that it gives a much larger efficiency gain than traditional robots alone, according to Adams.

He believes the success of UR in Australia is mainly driven by the high number of small to medium enterprises (SMEs), which makes up a large part of the company’s key clientele.

UR recently helped an Australian pharmaceutical producer change their production line from bottling face cream to manufacturing hand sanitiser.

“UR’s ease of use is what helped drive that because you can make those changes very quickly without having to make major changes to the programming of the robot,” Adams said.

The company has also achieved “high cut-through” with large pharmaceutical companies, where cobots played a role in fulfilling regulation requirements.

“Having a robot deal with product that is restricted access makes life a lot simpler,” Adams said.

“You don’t have to have a watcher watching the watcher watching the watcher, which is literally what you’re dealing with in pharma when you’re dealing with restricted access.”

UR’s clean room certified robots work in environments within the pharmaceutical, electronics and food and beverage industries.

“We meet a number of standards around clean room environments which gives us the capability to work in those environments without the contamination,” Adams said.

“That’s certainly a benefit to UR over any of the other collaborative robot brands that are out there, but in terms of those environments, we’re actually quite prevalent.”

For example, a recent blood testing solution has by the company has provided added benefits of protecting humans against risk of infection, while keeping blood samples clean.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided opportunities for cobots to assist Australian manufacturers through difficult times and continue to meet market expectations.

UR cobots run on a standard power outlet, and are light compared to traditional robots. They are also very cost effective and more affordable than people may think.

“One of the primary drivers for the uptake of collaborative robots is that we’re very easy to program and very easy to reprogram and move,” Adams said.

“What it allows you to do is react to very quick market fluctuations and hence keep your employees working and keep your business functioning.”