Ro­bot­ics now a gen­uine op­tion

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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.

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