The future is robotics

Lack of investment in robotics and automation is the reason for manufacturing decline.

If there's one thing the latest economic crisis has taught us, it's that we can't rely on the financial services sector for the creation of wealth. The old rule still applies: real wealth in an economy is only ever created by making things. And where the UK and US have led in the past, so the Japanese and Germans - and more recently China and India - have followed.

Making products that are affordable and desirable for the world's markets has helped the tiger economies of the Far East weather the worst effects of the recession while pundits in post-industrial nations such as the UK - whose prosperity now lies in the lap of the high-tech, knowledge and service industries - are still casting around with an increasing sense of desperation for "green shoots" of recovery.

One of the lessons of history we've forgotten is that manufacturing plays a vital role in a balanced economy and in generating wealth.

Gone are the smokestacks and blast furnaces of 20 or 30 years ago; modern manufacturing is more likely to be carried out in air-conditioned, glass-sided buildings - the very types of buildings used by the high-tech and service sectors - by people who have swapped the boiler suit for the collar and tie.

This has helped to foster the perception that manufacturing no longer plays a major role in the UK and US economies, but it's simply that production processes are more complex these days. Another argument has been that manufacturing in the West can't hope to compete with that in the Far East, so the status of manufacturing has slipped along with levels of investment.

A bellwether of this decline - particularly in the UK - has been the take-up of robotics and automation. At the time of writing the UK economy is still technically in a recession, so it's to be expected that manufacturing will have reined in investment, but figures show that for some years UK industry has doggedly refused to embrace the technology to anything like the extent as its European rivals.

As Nigel Platt, UK and Ireland sales and marketing manager for ABB Robotics, says: "While business for us at the moment is pretty flat, in that we've sold about the same number of robots this year as last, if we compare the number of robots sold in the UK with other European countries then the UK is lagging behind.

"In 2008, we saw a 37 per cent fall in the number of robots bought by UK manufacturing industry compared with 2007, and 2009 will be similar."

Just how far the UK is lagging behind the rest of Europe is illustrated by figures from the International Federation of Robotics. The IFR measures take-up of robotics in terms of robot density, which it defines as the number of multipurpose industrial robots per 10,000 persons employed in manufacturing. In the UK, that figure is 50; the European average is just over 100, with Germany standing at 240. (By contrast, Japan's density figure is 370.)

"That means even countries like Switzerland and Spain - hardly renowned for their industrial heritage and tradition - are ahead of the UK," says Platt. "And that concerns me, because the slower we invest the further behind we'll get. In fact, I think if we don't start adopting this technology on a wider scale soon then we won't have any manufacturing industry left."

And to counter the argument that the technology is unaffordable for hard-pressed UK companies, he points out that the costs of automation are the same here as, say, China.

Integrated approach

Cynics might argue that Platt's views are little more than a sales pitch from a large multinational corporation, but it's a similar picture at the other end of the business spectrum. While the entire ABB group employs about 120,000 people in about 100 countries, Loop Technology has a workforce of six operating out of its premises in Dorchester.

It too has had a flat year but, as its technical director Alun Reece says, that hasn't been helped by attitudes in UK manufacturing. "The situation's abysmal," he says, "there's definitely a lot of inertia, and all too often it's a case of companies not wanting to change their production methods simply because 'this is the way we've always done it'. Some companies are embracing the technology but a lot aren't."

Reece also points to that old bugbear, the short-term view. "Even when we explain that the technology has a payback period of 18 months to two years, companies often still won't make the investment," he says. "In the UK you have to do RoI [return on investment] calculations for companies; on the Continent you don't - they don't need persuading."

Another issue, according to Platt, is that UK companies try to "go it alone" by buying in robots and not realising the need for a whole-system, integrated approach. Doing it on the cheap like this doesn't give the full benefits of automation, perhaps adding to prejudice against robotics, but Reece takes a contrasting view. "We encourage companies to automate a small part of a process then, once their confidence is raised, we can look at automating the rest of the process."

Reece has also found that many companies believe robotic systems will be beyond their skill levels but, he says, a minimal level of training is all that's needed these days. "All the complexity is hidden now," he says.

Platt echoes this, saying ABB provides a range of products to simplify the start-up of a robotics application. "Our RobotStudio package, for example, allows programming to be carried out in a virtual environment way before you've finished building the automation facility itself. Force Control, meanwhile, allows the robot to adapt to the surface contour of parts to be processed, quickly and accurately," he says.

Skills for start-up are one thing, but all too often SMEs will baulk at the prospect of having to take on technicians to keep the machines running. Therein also lie a number of fallacies.

First is the issue of reliability - or unreliability. Platt quotes an MTBF figure of 100,000 hours for a typical robot, while Reece says: "A robot will last about 10-15 years, but it's not the robots themselves that usually go wrong anyway, it's more likely to be things like the end effector - the custom-built tool at the end of a robot's arm."

Reece adds that his company offers support contracts as a matter of course, while Platt flags up ABB's Remote Service package. This is an online diagnostics system where the robot itself automatically alerts a central database, triggering an SMS message to an ABB service engineer, who accesses a data and error log to identify the fault. From then on, the customer is supported remotely, often through direct access to the robot's control system.

"The idea here is to encourage SMEs to use robotic-based automation by doing away with the need for them to have their own technicians," he says. "And it allows us to move much more towards predictive maintenance, meaning we'll be able to despatch an engineer to sort out an impending problem with a robot before the customer knows the problem might exist."

Robotics a minority

This kind of approach acknowledges the parlous state of industrial robotics expertise in UK industry. As Reece says: "By it's nature, robotics in the UK is still a minority activity. Much of our new business comes via engineers at companies, but even they often don't have much experience of robotics."

Addressing this lack of knowledge takes education. Loop itself recently held an open day at its premises, where it showcased various sorting and palletising tasks, while ABB regularly goes out to colleges and universities.

"We've recently launched a new, small robot, the IRB 120 [see box below] that's aimed partly at the education sector," says Platt. "We've found that even on manufacturing courses at universities, there's little contact with real-world automation, so we've been trying for the past few years to encourage education establishments to use packages like RobotStudio, and we hope the IRB 120 will help with that."

The idea, of course, is to catch tomorrow's engineers early. Until then, suppliers like ABB and Loop Technology have to keep extolling the virtues and dispelling the myths of robot-based automation.

Yet another common misconception, says Reece, is that companies think robots are more expensive than they actually are. But as Platt says: "The acquisition and operating costs for a robot are typically about £5 per hour; a typical manufacturing worker costs just over £10 per hour to employ - and that's for an unskilled worker as well."

And both agree that robots don't have some of the typical human issues. For example, they don't get the Monday morning blues or POETS - Push Off Early, Tomorrow's Saturday - syndrome on a Friday. "It's really an issue of product quality here," says Reece, "in that it's better using robots because the production process is more repeatable."

That may be so, some detractors would say, but people can be redeployed where robots can't. Not true - in fact, robots can be used elsewhere fairly easily because the core robot itself, as opposed to its application-specific hardware, is inherently flexible. And because of that, robots hold their value.

"There's actually a large market in reconditioned robots," says Reece. "The only major issue with them is updating their motion control systems, but once that's done they're a popular means of entry into robotics for companies."

The past generation or so has seen UK manufacturing industries become an increasingly minor player in generating national wealth and prestige, with the consequence that engineering as a career has lost out in popularity among school-leavers and students to options such as accountancy and the media.

Industrial robotics has the potential to help reverse both these trends. "Every economy needs an element of manufacturing," says Reece, "and robotics will be essential to UK industry in the longer term." It's a long way from spanners and oily rags, he says, while Platt adds: "This sort of technology will help attract engineers of the future - it will change the image of the engineer."

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