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With the advent of Industry 4.0 and a reduction in its cost, industrial robotics is now much more accessible to SMEs. It might be that your manufacturing enterprise is considering this technology – but how do you get started with it?

Here, robotics specialist and Made Smarter Industrial Digital Technology Adviser, Tiarnan O’Kelly, talks about the benefits of robotics, the barriers to adoption, and the step-by-step process to implementing it successfully.

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Why robotics?
  • The benefits

    Firstly, I want to clarify what I mean by ‘robotics’. For this piece, I mean physical automation. This is often confused with robotic process automation (RPA) or artificial intelligence (AI) applications.

    There are so many advantages to robotics. Let’s go through some of the key benefits:

    Improved productivity

    Robots have a shorter cycle time than humans. Plus, they can do something that people would struggle with: working 24/7. The result? A substantial rise in productivity. They can be used for line resilience as well. If there’s a spike in demand, it’s a simple case of increasing their shifts.

    Enhanced product quality

    Robots are highly precise. This means there is a much lower chance of errors and mistakes, so you can guarantee the quality and consistency of output.

    Reduced operational costs

    Many use robots to carry out repetitive, low-value work. This saves some of the costs associated with the particular operation, allowing these savings to be redistributed elsewhere. As a result, you can boost the quality of other, higher-value areas.

    Upskilled workforce

    The manufacturing sector needs to close its growing skills gap. When industrial robots are used to perform the lower-skilled operations, team members can be deployed to undertake more challenging work or attend training sessions.

    Better health and safety

    Poor work environments and highly repetitive tasks are sometimes harmful to humans, and it is here where robots are best placed. As they don’t suffer fatigue, they’re less likely to make mistakes or experience accidents.

    This is by no means an exhaustive list. Other benefits to robotics include:

    • Greater staff fulfilment
    • Increased capability and flexibility
    • Better data capture and process oversight
    • Less handling time
    • Improved compliance
    • Reduced downtime
    • Higher space utilisation
    • Integration with ERP and MRP systems
    • Clearly defined payback times
  • The barriers to adoption

    Whilst robotics may have numerous advantages, some feel that this type of technology simply isn’t an option for them. And that’s all down to the challenges that can arise. Here are the most common ones:

    High initial investment

    The capital cost of these solutions presents quite the issue. Fortunately, there are integrators who can help to create a clear timeline of the payback period and ensure you maintain a positive cash flow.

    Advanced skill level

    People are often put off by robotics because of the lack of certainty over a successful implementation. When adopting robots for the first time, we always recommend investing in the upskilling or hiring of a robot programmer – they will be your business’ robotic ‘champion’, and will be on hand if ever there’s an issue.

    Limitations

    Robotics isn’t without its limitations. Unlike humans, robots can’t make their own decisions. Plus, their tasks have to stay relatively simple, without much variation. As a result, each task that’s programmed into a robot can only be carried out in that exact order. Any distinctions would need reprogramming – something which would take substantial time away from the robot on the manufacturing line.

    Different health and safety needs

    Although industrial robots can improve safety, this is only if they’re operated correctly. Otherwise, they can be very dangerous. You can mitigate that risk by introducing effective safety systems, like guarding tools and light gates.

    Reliance on company culture

    For any technology adoption to go successfully, team members need to be open to it. But this is no mean feat – especially with the fear around robots taking people’s jobs. Therefore, you should ensure their implementation is mainly focused around how robots are improving jobs. You should make it clear that you will always put people before technology.

    Other barriers to adoption include:

    • Increased time to switch from one operation to another
    • Dependence on human intervention to analyse processes for improvement
    • Inability to work in extreme conditions without specific customisation
    • Infrastructure requirements
  • The steps to implementation

    To begin your robotics journey, it’s crucial to know the process and identify the opportunity. We can break this down into seven core stages:

    1.Carry out your research

    First, it’s helpful to learn how other SMEs have applied this technology. Take a look at Made Smarter's case studies and you’ll find plenty of examples.

    You can also speak to robotics integrators, even during this early stage. They can show you the type of work they’ve completed before. To find a supplier, you can contact the Made Smarter team or visit our online Suppliers Directory.

    2.Identify your funding ability

    The cost of implementing robotics – at its very lowest end – starts at around £50,000, but small projects are more likely to cost at least £100,000. Make sure that your business has the necessary finances.

    If you want to see how much your project would roughly cost, this tool can help.

    3.Understand the process

    You need to know how robotics will fit into your production line, so create a process structure through a flow chart.

    This will help you to identify the variable in the process.

    4.Set your requirements

    Ensure you hold your enterprise to a certain set of standards. Always know the current state of the process, the handling characteristics of the products, the problem you’re trying to solve through automation, and your KPIs.

    Other key criteria you should be aware of is:

    • Output and floor space requirements
    • Product specification (its purpose and success factors)
    • Cost and time savings
    • Quality improvements

    5.Validate the opportunity

    By engaging with a robotics integrator, you can see whether the operation is feasible and receive an estimate of the application’s performance. This will enable you to calculate the ROI.

    Your company’s requirements will determine this split. However, cost shouldn’t be the only consideration. Remember, the benefits of robotics extend so much further than this.

    6.Select a design

    Once your chosen integrators have gone through the solution with you, they should propose a final design with a functional design specification (FDS). This might include a training plan, a changeover period, a timeline for execution, and any key milestones.

    At this stage, you can involve Made Smarter to give third-party proposal advice. You may even be able to secure Made Smarter grant funding if you engage with us prior to purchasing your tech.

    7.Integrate your robotics

    Here, you’ll implement the robotics into your production line. The integrators, together with any team members you’d like to involve, will handle this.

    This is a basic introduction to incorporating robotics into your SME. For further guidance on how it works, reach out to the advisers here at Made Smarter. With specialist advice, support and funding, you can get well on your way to successfully using industrial robots in your enterprise.

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