Robotic automation in low volume processes

A recent survey carried out on behalf of ABB Robotics UK reveals that many UK manufacturers have yet to be convinced about the suitability of robotic automation for low volume or bespoke production processes.

Of the 221 companies that responded to the survey, 134 are not currently using robots. When asked to specify their reasons, 27% of these respondents identified themselves as operating low volume or bespoke processes which they did not deem as suitable for robotic automation.

“The unfortunate flipside of the success of robotic automation in the automotive industry is that it has led to a popular belief that robots are only suitable for mass production processes,” says Mike Wilson, General Industry Sales and Marketing Manager for ABB’s UK Robotics business. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. Developments in robotic technology have made robots more flexible than ever, enabling them to be quickly switched between completely different products and processes.”

“There is no reason why the same flexibility and agility which enables packaging producers to use the same robots to handle dozens of differently sized and shaped products cannot be readily applied to producing engineered products,” adds Wilson. “While producing an engineered product may be a world away from handling a package, the underlying principle is the same – namely that a robot offers a highly flexible and efficient means of handling different processes and / or products, especially when compared to fixed-purpose machinery.”

One example of this is agricultural machinery producer, Shelbourne Reynolds. The Suffolk-based company originally installed a robotic welding cell to handle the welding operations involved in the production of low volume articulated hedge cutting tractor attachments. In order to maximise its investment, the company then decided to expand the duties handled by the cell to include working on other products, freeing up manual workers to handle other manufacturing tasks on other product lines.

Convincing more UK manufacturers to embrace automation is one of the key recommendations of a new report by the All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group (APMG). Prepared with the help of leading figures in industry, including representatives from companies, institutions and Government, ‘Making Good: A study of culture and competitiveness in UK manufacturing’ addresses the problems currently impeding the progress of UK manufacturing companies, including a reluctance to automate.

“One of the key findings of the report is that the cost-conscious, short-term outlook of British companies has prevented them from seeing the bigger picture when it comes to automation,” says Wilson. “A fixation on the capital outlay cost has meant that the longer term cost benefits of using automation to deliver flexible manufacturing, where the same line can be used to produce multiple products, are ignored.”

To help companies to assess the scope for introducing robotic automation into their processes, ABB is offering a free, no-obligation ‘Productivity & Efficiency Appraisal’ service. Lasting half a day, the appraisal includes a visit by an ABB engineer who will help to spot potential areas where robots could help deliver productivity and efficiency savings. For more information, or to book an appraisal, email or call 01908 350300 ref. ‘Free appraisal’.

You can also now quickly estimate the potential return on investment in robotic automation using ABB’s online Return on Investment calculator tool. To try the calculator, please visit

Robots on display at INNOROBO in Lyon

Bruno Bonnell

Bruno Bonnell

Exhibitions showing the latest in robot and automation developments are popular around the world, and attract public as well as industrial user interest, so there is always a big audience. In Europe, and particularly in France, the major exhibition and conference is InnoRobo, typically attracting around 15,000 visitors every March to Lyon, the second largest city in France, and capital of the south central Rhône-Alpes region. Founded four years ago, InnoRobo was initially dedicated to service robotics, rather than automated production machines. Bruno Bonnell, president of Syrobo, the French association for robotics companies, commented that four years ago the show had prototypes only, with no ‘live’ machines available from production. Last year the synergy between service robots and industrial robotics was the main discussion point, and ‘cobotics’ had emerged – the science of human-robotic collaboration. At the 2014 show, from 18-20 March, the scene was totally reversed, with every stand demonstrating working production models, and the prime discussion point was human-machine collaboration. Most robots displayed smooth moulded contours, with custom plastic mouldings to cover joints and motors, presumably formed from 3D printed moulds, since the maximum production runs discussed were around 1000. The smaller humanoid robots developed first, like the Nao, have grown bigger with second generation units getting taller, and even some full sized – in height: some were more expensive than others.

Business Aspects

Business investment, start-ups and opportunities were at the front of everyone’s mind. InnoRobo last year launched a call for start-up companies to present their ideas to a jury of high tech investors, and obtain a slot at the conference to pitch to a wider audience. This was repeated in 2014, and there seemed to be a wide range of Government, Regional, entrepreneurial and Stock market funds available to the right ideas.

NAO robots from Aldebaran apparently developing jealousy: the orange robot had been attracting too much praise for recognizing and naming the animal pictures shown on flash cards – albeit presented slowly

NAO robots from Aldebaran apparently developing jealousy: the orange robot had been attracting too much praise for recognizing and naming the animal pictures shown on flash cards – albeit presented slowly

Undoubtedly a lot of this finance is being channelled into research projects, typically at Universities, but many times this work is undertaken in health or medical departments, or others, like agriculture, where robot software engineers are becoming more acceptable as staff members. Plus the producers of the robots, like the Nao from Aldebaran in France, or the ICub robot from IIT in Italy, find these University studies provide the major market for many hundreds of production robots. Typically these researchers can pool the available software developed in many centres, to enable their next research step.

Research at Lyon

Within the French National Institute of Health and Medical research, the robot software development team has been working since 2008, and has now seven people working on human-robot interaction. They won the funding to acquire the ICub robot based on this work proposal, and have developed eye and eyelid movements to give the right social signals. Other groups co-operating on similar tasks (across Spain, Italy, Britain, Scandinavia and Switzerland) have been developing such aspects as mouth and lip movement, with the same objective, and the ICub variants developed have had success in interfacing with children with learning difficulties. As ever, to get on in this world, you need to brush up on your interpersonal skills, and this is needed for robots too.

Encouraging European robotics

The potential for the robotics industry makes it a prime target for development investment by Governments, as a classic high tech industry creating many high-tech jobs. Obvious in Lyon were the efforts from the French and German Regional Governments, and from the European Commission. Regional clusters of expertise, maybe in different aspects of the technology, were claimed for Rhône-Alpes, Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées, and Bavaria/Munich. Eric Bourguignon of Bayfor Munich claimed to be project managing many EU funded robot projects, with international collaborations, and even providing travel grants for local industry to visit international partners. In France there has been specific robotic expertise developed by the nuclear industry, for example by CEA in the south, which is also applied by Areva in their nuclear plants. Philippe Bidaud of GdR-Robotique, the French co-ordinating body for robotics research in Government institutions, also mentioned the use by CNRS, the French Railways, of drones, on civil engineering survey work, for example monitoring lines across bridges and other structures from the air. Flying at 150m, these drones can monitor rail line positioning to within 2mm.

Commercial investment

Frank Tobe, based in California, is the publisher of the website, which identifies and provides data on all companies working in the robotics market. Tobe is also the co-founder and research analyst for Robo-Stox LLC, the first benchmark index to track the global robotics and automation market, which has the aim of providing investment products that target these sectors. He arrived at InnoRobo in Lyon straight from Modex, a material handling exhibition in Atlanta, where he had been impressed by the warehousing systems developed by Amazon following their acquisition of Kiva Technologies in April 2012.

From his website the distribution of current robot commercial companies can be assessed, which actually shows how these are mainly concentrated in Southern Germany within the European area, perhaps in contrast to the R&D activities presented throughout the conference from France. Tobe sees agriculture as the area where aspects of robotic technology will give the major benefits initially, but points to companies like Apple, Amazon and Google who are investing heavily into the technologies. Vision systems and software are the major investment areas, followed by production engineering.

Examples quoted by Frank Tobe perhaps illustrate how the discrete automation systems are being changed to process automation systems using “cobotics”: there is now an automated pizza machine that will produce a hot pizza with a customer specified topping in 5 minutes, and a similar hamburger machine – and he praised Fanuc for having the first “dark” factory, totally unmanned, producing components from fully automated machinery. Fanuc attended the InnoRobo conference, and claimed 15000 robots active in France, from 15 separate integration partners.

European Fund

Bruno Bonnell, of Syrobo, is also a partner in Robolution Capital, a Paris based private equity fund (managed by Orkos Capital SAS) that will invest in innovative companies in the ‘fast growing’ service robotics market, mainly within Europe. The management of the fund sees potential in many European companies, and is not limited or restricted to France – although many of the team of the fund managers are French. The comments in the fund launch presentation, translated from the French, commented that “Today, 60 French laboratories are recognized worldwide for their service robotics, and Robolution Capital can create leverage to make France the California of Europe”.  The required funding target of Euro80m was achieved in March, with a 50/50 public private split: the public money coming from Bank Bpi in France, insurer AG2R-La Mondiale, Orange, EdF and Thales. The first investments, of between Euro300k and Euro5m, are expected to be made by the Summer of 2014.

Miscellany at Innorobo in Lyon:

Robo-Stox companiesRobo-Stox logo

The Robo-Stox portfolio by value is 36% made up of US companies, and 24% from Japan: 6.4% come from each of Germany and Taiwan, 5.1% Switzerland and 3.9% from the UK: France has 2.6% along with Sweden, Israel, Netherlands and Canada. Of the companies allocated 2.35% of the weight of the portfolio each, the industrial automation names are ABB, Fanuc, Keyence, Kuka, Omron, Rockwell, and Yaskawa. Other companies that are allocated just under 1% each include Brooks, Flir, Jenoptik, Mitsubishi, NI, Renishaw, Schneider, Siemens and Yokogawa.

The Čapek Prize

Prof. Inoue

Prof. Inoue

An evening reception held in the sumptuous ballroom of the Lyon Town Hall, included the presentation by the InnoRobo organizers of the Čapek Prize to Prof Hirochika Inoue of the University of Tokyo, in recognition of his work on the development of robot-human collaboration. As Prof Inoue commented, a collaborative robot possibly becomes corroborative to a Japanese speaker, so the end result has been simplified to the word “Cobot”, for a co-operative, service robot. While this signals a move of the image of the robot away from that of the classic aggressive machine with sharp humanoid features, the silver statue presented in recognition of the prize for Prof Inoue’s work showed a return to the old image of a warrior robot – the education needs to continue!

The InnoRobo Exhibits

"Remote presence" via an AWAbot

“Remote presence” via an AWAbot

As might have been expected, the show aisles were quite crowded with various different styles of robot, some walking, some automated delivery systems, alongside the visitors. From France, telepresence technology (created by Bruno Bonnell in 2011) was in evidence with Beam robots strolling around. A user of such a telepresence robot guides a wheeled robot remotely, via the internet, and communicates with the remote environment by internet quality speech: the picture of the remote person, from his webcam, is shown on the screen held at eye level, and can be seen by people in front of the robot. While the person driving the robot can see in front of him, inevitably people to the side and behind are in danger of being knocked around, which caused some broken glasses from drinks tables at one evening reception, gate-crashed by the robots! Actually, these robots did seem to spend most of their time talking to one another, maybe because everyone else avoided their attention. Maybe the design needs more attention in the interpersonal skills area, which is what ‘cobotics’ is all about!

That Rubik cube!

Have you managed to solve how to do it yet? At the “Big Bang” Fair in Birmingham, UK, an automated system based on a Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone analyzed the cube and instructed four robotic hands to do the manipulations. These were controlled by eight Lego Mindstorm EV3 bricks – all these intelligent devices are equipped with ARM processors, and they completed the task in a record 3.25 seconds. The “robot” system was created by Mike Dobson and David Gilday, who seem to be specialists in the Rubik cube. The Big Bang Fair is designed to encourage UK school children to take up science, technology, engineering or maths careers.

What’s the value of patents?

The task of gaining and then maintaining a Patent is both laborious and expensive: many companies have given up this effort, or at least only use external expertise when necessary for the ideas seen at the time as their most important innovations. Many times the real value of an idea will only become obvious many years later.

Patents protect unique ideas for new product developments: but Patents also have another use, as a defensive statement of the company knowledge base at a certain point in time. Both aspects are quoted by Endress+Hauser as the reason they encourage R&D engineers to file for patents. Angelika Andres is a physicist and patent lawyer who heads the 20-strong patent department of the Group, tasked to assess and process all invention disclosures: she comments that “We strongly encourage our employees to register their ideas as soon as possible and without any reservation.” A total of 236 new patent applications were made in 2013, six more than the previous year: Germany and the European Union, the USA and China are the main countries where E+H patents are listed. Of 720 employees who work in research and development, 365, or over half of them, were involved in filing an initial patent application last year. These inventors were honoured at the annual “Innovator’s Meeting, in Freiburg, Germany, earlier this year, and are pictured below. Prizes were awarded for patents that are seen to be of particular economic significance for the company.

eh inventors 2014

“We operate in an intensively competitive industry,” states Michael Ziesemer, coo of the Endress+Hauser Group. “Our advantage is secured by innovative products – and in turn we can safeguard these innovations by protecting them with patents at a very early stage.” Ziesemer has no problem with the Euro5m ($7m) invested every year in this protection of their intellectual property.

70% of patents ‘not used’

As patents become older, the higher the maintenance fees become, so the patent portfolio is regularly reviewed, keeping an eye on markets of decreasing importance. Only about a third of patents are actually ever used: but even the ‘unused’ patents have an economic weight, providing at times a protective wall around the business, and used “in order to stave off attacks from competitors”. Ziesemer explains that from time to time competitors believe that their industrial property rights have been infringed. “A large patent portfolio acts as a protective shield.” The more patents a company can throw into the balance, the better the prospects in a dispute. “Our patents are our insurance.”

A wireless example

Michael Ziesemer cites the recent developments in wireless technology to provide a significant example here. “The peak time for patents was ten years ago. If we hadn’t patented technologies and the corresponding software and hardware back then, we would have to pay license fees today and would only be able to supply our sensors as components.” Instead, today Endress+Hauser is a successful system supplier in the field of wireless solutions. This also shows that how innovative a new invention really is and what advantages it can offer customers often only becomes obvious after many years.

New GE plant in Saudi Arabia

As part of their $1Bn investment commitment to local manufacturing in Saudi Arabia, GE has started construction of a 9500sq.m building in the Second Industrial City in Dammam. This will enable the expansion of the manufacturing capability and operations of the nearby existing Pressure Control facility, which is certified to the API and ISO quality management systems. This expansion will create over 100 new career opportunities for skilled Saudi engineers and accelerate customer deliveries on key equipment such as wellheads and valves for the upstream oil and gas sector, more than doubling the existing workforce.

Rami Qasem, president and ceo of GE Oil & Gas, (Middle East, North Africa and Turkey) said: “The current expansion will enhance the in-house repair facilities and add more capacity to our manufacturing unit. It will contribute to promoting the operational efficiency of our customers in addition to creating new jobs for Saudi professionals and developing local suppliers in the SME sector.”

This ground-breaking follows the recently announced GE plans to expand the manufacturing capabilities of the GE Manufacturing Technology Center in Dammam, which will now manufacture the most advanced, high efficiency GE gas turbines, creating new engineering jobs and more opportunities for local suppliers. Over 500 GE turbines currently generate over 50% of Saudi electricity.

New paperless recorder

Yokogawa has announced the launch of their new SmartDAC+ GX and GP series paperless recorders, which comply with the FDA 21 CFR Part 11 guidelines, and accommodate an increased number of inputs. The FDA 21 CFR Part 11 guidelines were issued in 1997, and stipulate what is required for electronic records and electronic signatures to have the same validity as paper-based records and signatures. With release 2, the GX and GP series recorders now comply with these guidelines for use in production operations.

In addition the new units can be used with up to six expansion units, each of which can accommodate up to 60 inputs. Including direct inputs, this gives each recorder the ability to handle a combined total of up to 450 inputs. The expansion units can be located at up to 100m from the recorder, so enabling reduced cabling costs for satellite operations.

The recorder also is available with an optional graphic display, enabling the unit to operate as a process display unit or console panel, in addition to its main data recording function.

Emerson expands flow manufacturing in Europe

In a US$76m (Euro55m) investment in new facilities at company’s campus in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Emerson is strengthening their growing global manufacturing and engineering services network

The expansion includes a new 18,800 square-metre flow measurement manufacturing building. This US$60m (Euro43.4m) investment will help meet growing demand for the company’s flow measurement products and services in Europe and other regions.

Additionally, in the summer of 2014, Emerson Process Management moves into a separate, newly constructed US$16m (Euro11.6m) facility on the Cluj campus that will be home to the Regional Project Engineering Centre and the European System Integration Centre for its PlantWeb Solutions Group. This facility will house up to 600 employees who provide engineering and support services for European control systems and automation projects, plus an initial 100 additional personnel to assemble and test control systems for projects throughout Europe.

“Our customers in Europe and elsewhere strive to improve efficiencies, meet safety and environmental regulations, and reduce energy use, and they are turning to Emerson for our technology and expertise to meet these goals,” said Steve Sonnenberg, president of Emerson Process Management. “Adding this new manufacturing capability and centralising our systems assembly and integration for DeltaV and Ovation systems in Cluj, as well as increasing our project management, engineering and sales support staff there, enable Emerson to better support our European customers and ensure improved response times for our product and service support across the region.”

The new flow technology manufacturing building will offer calibration, services and customer training facilities for Emerson Process Management’s Micro Motion, Rosemount, and Roxar flow measurement technologies. This facility will provide modern and spacious production capabilities as well as offices for engineering and customer support services, and fulfil market demands for quality and traceable calibration. In addition, a state-of-the-art customer experience centre is planned that will incorporate training and meeting facilities, along with displays of Emerson technologies. The new facility adds to Emerson’s current European network of facilities, which includes an existing flow manufacturing and service centre in Ede, The Netherlands.

“These additional capabilities increase our flexibility and ability to manage our European customers’ most challenging needs,” said Sonnenberg. “With this strategic investment, we are committed to continually increasing our local expertise and improving our service levels to customers.”

Emerson’s Cluj-Napoca campus is now one of the parent company’s largest sites in Europe, currently employing more than 1,900 people. This location has proven to be an excellent choice for Emerson’s rapidly expanding production and knowledge centres due to the number of local technical and economic sciences universities and availability of highly qualified engineering professionals.

Emerson’s Cluj-Napoca campus currently manufactures Fisher pressure regulators, Roxar flow metering and flow assurance products, Rosemount Analytical products, Leroy-Somer power generators, Control Techniques electrical equipment for photovoltaic power plants, Ridgid tools, and Appleton ATX lighting fixtures and junction boxes for hazardous and adverse environments

Alfa Laval acquires Frank Mohn

Alfa Laval has signed an agreement to acquire Frank Mohn AS, a leading manufacturer of submerged pumping systems to the marine and offshore markets. The acquisition, which strengthens Alfa Laval’s fluid handling portfolio by adding a unique pumping technology, will further reinforce Alfa Laval’s position as a leading supplier to the marine and offshore oil & gas markets.

Alfa Laval has agreed to acquire Frank Mohn AS (“Frank Mohn”), with the product brand Framo, for a total cash consideration of NOK 13Bn ($2.2Bn), on a cash and debt free basis, from Wimoh AS, a company controlled by the Mohn family. Frank Mohn, headquartered in Bergen, Norway and with approximately 1,200 employees, generated sales of NOK 3.4Bn ($600m) and had an order intake of NOK 6.1Bn ($1Bn) in 2013. The operating margin is significantly above the Alfa Laval average. The acquisition is expected to be EPS accretive as from closing of the transaction.

“Frank Mohn is an excellent company that we have been following closely for several years. It has highly skilled employees, high quality products and a market-leading position within segments offering attractive long-term growth prospects”, says Lars Renström, President and CEO of the Alfa Laval Group. “The combination of Frank Mohn and Alfa Laval will provide a very attractive offering of products, systems and services and it will strengthen our leading position as a provider of critical systems for ships and offshore oil & gas production units, with unmatched service capabilities.”

Alfa Laval continuously looks for growth opportunities and considers the long-term growth prospects for marine and offshore oil & gas markets to be very attractive. Frank Mohn is a leading supplier to these markets by providing submerged pumping systems, under the product brand Framo.

With the acquisition of Frank Mohn, Alfa Laval also strengthens its fluid handling portfolio by adding industrial pumping systems to the existing range of equipment, which is today mainly dedicated to sanitary applications with high demands on hygiene.

Frank Mohn’s main product in the marine segment is its unique submerged cargo pumping system, which plays a vital part in maximizing the utilization of product and chemical tankers. The system enables safe and flexible cargo handling performance for quicker turnaround time and fewer voyages in ballast.

In the oil & gas segment, Frank Mohn offers packaged pumping systems for offshore installations including seawater lift, water injection and fire water pumping systems contributing to safe and efficient operations.

The service organization of Frank Mohn provides technical support during the installation phase of a project, as well as professional service throughout the lifetime of the installed systems. The service activities represented slightly more than 20 percent of the total sales 2013.

“Consolidation and globalization takes place in all industries. We have shown competitiveness through innovation, quality and a long-term view on customer relations. Alfa Laval’s commitment and focus on quality products to an international market is a heritage we share”, says Trond Mohn, Chairman of Frank Mohn AS. “Our customers and employees have recognized Alfa Laval as a reliable supplier of heat exchangers and separators for generations.”

Trond Mohn continues: “Alfa Laval is the only company we could see as a responsible and long-term owner of Frank Mohn AS and I am very happy that we have reached an agreement. Through Alfa Laval’s industrial platform and global reach we are confident that Framo will continue to serve demanding customers and foster its position as a global leader.”

The acquisition of Frank Mohn will be funded by existing credit facilities and a fully committed bridge facility. Alfa Laval’s net debt/EBITDA ratio on a pro forma basis (following completion of the acquisition) would be around 2.5x. The transaction is expected to be EPS accretive as from the closing and synergies are expected to reach about NOK 120 million annually, gradually realized over a three year period.

After closing, Alfa Laval intends to include Frank Mohn and the product brand Framo in the Marine & Diesel division, headed by Peter Leifland, Executive Vice President, Alfa Laval Group. The company will be kept together and form a new segment in the Marine & Diesel division, under the same management as today. The activities in the Bergen area in Norway; the new office and sales & service facility at Askøy – as well as production facilities at Fusa, Flatøy and Frekhaug – will become Alfa Laval’s operational centre for marine and offshore pumping systems. Together with Alfa Laval’s other marine operational centres in Aalborg, Denmark, and Tumba, Sweden, it will create an even stronger supplier to the marine and offshore industries.

The closing of the transaction is subject to approval from regulatory authorities.

Alfa Laval’s acquisition strategy is based on the business concept of constantly optimizing the performance of our customers’ processes. This means that Alfa Laval seeks to undertake acquisitions and form alliances that strengthen the existing key technologies by adding new solutions as well as complementary products and channels. Over the last five years, Alfa Laval has acquired some 20 companies with total sales, the year prior to the acquisitions, of about SEK 7.5Bn.