Written by Nigel Platt, Sales & Marketing Director, ABB UK Robotics business
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The most recent set of statistics from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) seems to indicate a continued glowing future for industrial robots. The statistics show that 165,000 robots were sold in 2011, 37 percent up on the previous year and the highest level recorded in 50 years.
This increase in sales comes in spite of, or perhaps because of, the world economic crisis, which has seen many of the world’s leading industrial nations hit by varying degrees of financial turmoil.
The fact that robot sales underwent a dramatic increase despite these problems highlights a growing realisation of the overall benefits of robotic automation in industrial applications.
Although much of the growth took place in the automotive and metals and machinery industries, there has also been an increase in the rate of adoption in other markets as well. Developments in robotic technology in recent years have seen dramatic reductions in both complexity and price, making them increasingly suitable for an expanding variety of tasks. The speed, accuracy and reliability of modern robots make them well suited to the demands of electronics, food and beverage and pharmaceutical manufacturing and packaging applications, for example.
A significant benefit of robotic technology is its ability to reduce wastage and improve product consistency. Like any significant investment, the outlay on an automated production system is not likely to be cheap, including as it does not just the cost of the equipment, but also the associated costs involved in installation and implementation.
However, by enabling companies to get their products ‘right first time’, robots can help users achieve savings in time, cost and materials that can quickly help to recoup their original outlay on purchasing and installing the technology.
Proof of this can be seen from an installation at a leading UK producer of baked products, which installed a robotic picking and placing system from ABB. Handling up to 110 picks per minute, the improved performance achieved by the robots, including faster turnaround, improved productivity and reduced overheads, enabled the company to achieve payback on its investment in the automated system in under one year.
Levelling the international playing field
The ability to reduce the cost of production in particular has been a major factor in helping to create a progressively level playing field for companies attempting to compete with producers in low cost countries.
General Electric’s Jack Welch famously said in the 1980s that the continued competitiveness of American industry hinged around manufacturers having to decide whether to ‘automate, emigrate or evaporate’.
In the US in particular, it would seem that this prophecy is now quite literally coming home to roost. Like many of their counterparts in other higher cost economies, American companies transferred much of their production overseas to lower cost countries (LCCs) in search of higher profits. However, a variety of factors including rising costs in LCCs, concerns over the protection of intellectual property (IP) and political pressure to restore the country’s manufacturing base, have seen an increasing number of these same companies now bringing their production back home.
The decision to re-shore operations has provided a valuable shot in the arm for automation. Where robots are concerned, the realisation of their ability to reduce overheads whilst boosting competitiveness has seen double-digit growth in the number being installed in the US alone in the past two years.
Frequently hailed as the model example of an industrialised Western manufacturing nation, Germany is a good example of what can be achieved by a positive commitment to automated technology. The world’s third largest exporter of finished products, Germany has a strong engineering sector comprised of automotive, machinery and metals manufacturing, as well as wind turbines and solar panels. Robots are extensively used in the production of each of these products and are a key ingredient in the country’s international competitiveness.
In the UK, which still has a relatively low rate of robot adoption, a growing realisation of the benefits of robots is helping to create a steady growth in the installed base. Still overwhelmingly strong in the automotive sector, robots are also beginning to find their way into other sectors as well, most notably food and beverage and packaging applications.
It is also perhaps ironic that the advance of robots in the UK, as in other countries, is being further assisted by the economic turndown. As a highly adaptable production tool that can be readily switched between different tasks, robots are providing manufacturers with the flexibility to respond much more quickly to changes in demand, whether in terms of quantity or to accommodate changes in product designs.
Keeping pace with demand
Whilst an escalation in the demand for robots is undoubtedly a good thing, it poses several challenges for automation suppliers. As well as keeping pace with demand, these suppliers, including ABB, have to be able to provide a truly global service and support network to ensure that users receive the assistance and help they need to keep their robots operational.
ABB achieves this in a number of ways. Strategically placed centres of excellence, such as the company’s Milton Keynes Robotics Training Centre in the UK, for example, provide operators with in-depth training on all aspects of robot operation and maintenance.
Direct technical support is also available via a network of Field Service Engineers, who offer 24/7 coverage and fast response to technical problems within the UK and Ireland.
ABB is also able to remotely monitor its customers’ robots to help identify when problems are likely to occur and ensure that help is automatically dispatched before they can escalate. This proactive approach enables users to extend their Mean Time between Failure (MTBF) periods, shorten the subsequent Mean Time to Repair (MTTR) and in turn, lower the cost of ownership, all resulting in much greater predictability.
Even despite the extensive financial difficulties facing countries worldwide, there is still an insatiable appetite for manufactured goods. For those companies that produce these goods, not least that have re-shored their operations, the race is on to find new ways not only to survive, but also to thrive. As a means of producing goods economically and at the quantity and quality that consumers demand, automation, and robots in particular, are likely to be finding their way into an increasing number of factories worldwide in the very near future.
With over 190,000 robots installed worldwide, ABB is a leading supplier of industrial robotic technology, modular manufacturing systems and service. For more information, email email@example.com, call 01908 350300 ref. ‘Automation’, or visit www.abb.com/robotics. To view more videos, visit ABB’s robotics YouTube channel www.youtube.com/abbrobotics