Let’s face it, Australia’s manufacturing sector needs help.
There are certainly many great things going on with innovative products and services being developed, and with the dollar at rock bottom, we hope, it is a good time to get into export.
But the problem is that for all the great ideas our companies continue to be nailed by competitors elsewhere who can produce similar products and services faster and cheaper.
So, any way that we can speed up production and reduce our costs is going to help with that competitive edge.
One way to do that is through the application of robots.
Sure some of the great minds in science and innovation have recently warned that we have to be wary of robots. They have evoked the image of the Hollywood view of robotics with movies such as I Robot, Total Recall, Robo-Cop and so on, where robots are not our friends in fact they are looking to take over…..
And who knows, in a lab somewhere a scientist is probably working on an artificial intelligence that will allow a robotic brain to learn independently and who knows where that will lead.
An article in the prestigious Harvard Political review which featured on the even more prestigious Australian Manufacturers Forum on LinkedIn debunked the theory that robots are waiting patiently for the right moment to stab us in the back and wipe out the human race.
The article points to the constant cycle of automation since technology first entered man’s orbit with the invention of the wheel. Each successive innovation has been greeted with fear and suspicion, but each has been adopted into everyday life as a vital component of modern living/business/enterprise.
It will be the application of Industrial robots, programmable machines that can undertake the precise or repetitive and boring tasks that will make a difference in Australian manufacturing particularly at the Small to Medium Enterprise level where every cent spent counts.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) must embrace what automation and technology has to offer to solve their most common problems – manpower shortage and the constant pressure of increasing productivity. The use of automation can hand SMEs the edge in today’s competitive market by assigning robots to do a multitude of tasks 24/7 with minimal supervision.
Not only can robots break the monotony of a process line and minimise workmanship errors, workers can also be re-assigned to other areas on the floor where their expertise can be better utilised. When deployed in a production process, robots are expected by manufacturers to improve efficiency, maximise productivity, increase cost competitiveness and contribute to a safer working environment.
Many of our major competitors have already embraced robotic support at the factory level. According to the Harvard Political Review and the China Daily, the first zero labour factory is now under construction in China by Everwin Precision Technology, a company which designs and produces electronic parts. This move will cut the company’s workforce on the factory floor by 90 per cent. And Everwin are not the only ones heading down this trail.
Of course these stories only feed into the fear of the science fiction adherents, but the reality is that the human workforce is redeployed elsewhere in the company where they can be more productive, areas such as design and sales and marketing.
Research shows that deploying robots in a production line frees up precious time for workers who can now upgrade their skills and apply their expertise in various other departments. Productivity cannot be achieved if workers fear for their lives every day or perform backbreaking tasks that result in lapses of concentration. Robots can be the long-term solution to improving quality, job satisfaction and ultimately, the bottom line.
At the SME level business owners are analysing the cost benefits robots can bring to their enterprise. One of the big benefits from global research is that business owners expect and in most cases achieve a single robot to payback for its value in as little as 12 to 15 months. This is particularly the case with companies like Universal Robots, which produces equipment designed largely for the SME sector.
The development of robots which are easy to program and deploy gives manufacturers the edge in today’s fast-paced environment where output must be delivered cost-efficiently and manpower is scarce. Far from requiring a background in engineering, the robots can be programmed by shop floor workers with ease. Making the set-up and installation user-friendly reduces deployment time, downtime and maximises returns on investment.
Design has been a major feature of the Scandinavian based Universal Robots which in many cases are designed for the SME industrial level. They are lightweight and can be moved by one person allowing a business to deploy the product on a variety of tasks. They are smaller, having a footprint which is designed not to use us too much valuable real estate. They are safe and in most cases the machine and a human operator can work side by side in close quarters.