Robotics now a genuine option
If you are a producer of goods in small to medium volumes you could be forgiven for believing there is no way you could benefit from the application of robots. Historically this has been the case, largely because industrial robotic arms were developed for large volume producers such as the automotive and consumer electronics industries.
Because these producers typically enjoy high volumes of a fewer number of product variants, the robots developed were strong, fast and accurate – but they were also expensive and complicated to deploy. Cost also came in the form of substantial guarding to prevent injury to workers.
For SME’s and for New Zealand (with more than 95 per cent of its producers being small to medium enterprises) the good news is that robot makers are keenly aware of this untapped market and are leaving robotics ‘arms race’ – speed, accuracy and power – to offer technology with ease of use, inherent safety and flexibility as key characteristics. What this means in the real world is that robots are becoming easy to use, through intuitive graphical or teach programming, lightweight with little or no maintenance required.
A single robot can be deployed into multiple uses (eg: pack, assemble, machine tending), human-machine collaborative robots can be used without safety guarding, and returning a better than two-year ROI is typically achievable, even with varied or smaller production volumes.
An industrial robot’s range of motion and adaptability into additional or completely new processes mean that robots are future-proofed to a greater extent than almost any other piece of industrial machinery.
Put simply, SME’s are beginning to enjoy the benefits that automated production has, that until recently has only delivered to the big boys. These benefits include higher production rates, increased quality, increased production system availability, reduced energy costs, reduced inventory and reduced labour cost. The reduction in labour cost is the most obvious and also the controversial benefit to automating production. Various parties argue that robots cost or save jobs depending on their point of view. What is not always clear is that these labour savings usually relate to the direct labour cost attributed to a product and not a reduction of the total labour utilised.
This is because automation is generally used where there are bottlenecks or capability constraints in production; remove these and productivity increases; unless there is no labour involved anywhere else in the production line the increased throughput will place a heavier demand on any manual processes (including accounts, management, dispatch, etc).
The labour cost of tending a CNC machine can be as much as 40 per cent of the charge out rate of the machine, a cost that makes competition with imported goods very difficult. A robotically equipped machine shop will incur an additional initial cost due to setting up the robot but when these costs are amortised across a production run, and without an operator tending the machine, the savings can allow local producers to compete.
Traditionally there has been difficulty in outsourcing low volume
manufacture to countries such as China or Korea. This is due in part to the lack of interest in small volumes from manufacturers in these countries, but also due to the difficulty in communication and ensuring quality is maintained.
Competition for work is no longer with the guys down the road, it has become global. CNC machining is just one example of many, where there is a real risk to local companies losing out due to the higher cost of materials and labour here in New Zealand. This makes it critical for local producers to take advantage of opportunities which enable them to remain competitive on a global scale.
The ability to automate small batch production with this new generation of flexible robots is a game changer for local manufacturers. As a nation of SME’s, small volume, high value product manufacture is in keeping with our size and capability; the country can remain competitive in manufacture; we can maintain the skills to produce things and at a higher level we can further enjoy the returns of the valuable intellectual property developed here in New Zealand.
Design Energy is a Christchurch-based engineering firm specialising in industrial automation and technology product development. The company provides solutions to businesses from small private companies to some of New Zealand’s foremost producers. Design Energy is the sole NZ representative for Nachi Robotics and Universal Robots – producers of the most widely used new generation flexible industrial robots.