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 robotics@gb.abb.com 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 http://new.abb.com/products/robotics/roi-calculator.

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