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Robot investment is booming in China, with a 20 per cent increase reported, and the country is expected to install more than 100,000 industrial robots by 2015.

This should start alarm bells to ring, as should reports that demand for robots is also increasing in the low-wage economies of east Europe and south-east Asia, not to mention India and Russia.

All are seeking to reduce production costs, increase output and enhance quality by turning to flexible automation.

Industrial robots are recognised as the key components in the drive towards automation and represent one of the quickest ways of boosting productivity and reducing labour costs.

The latest statistics indicate that emerging markets recognise this, with countries such as China, Taiwan, Russia, India and Malaysia all busily automating their manufacturing plants.

Yet the UK continues to lag behind most other industrialised nations, with robot shipments to this country down once again, and, aside from the automotive sector, flexible automation is comparatively sporadic within British manufacturing.

If robot density is accepted as an accurate indicator of automation, then with less than 100 robots per 100,000 people employed in the UK’s manufacturing industry, the country is below almost every other advanced or emerging nation.

This may be due to traditional suspicions that robots cost jobs, to shareholders favouring dividends over capital investment or simply because the country is beguiled by the notion that it is now a service economy that doesn’t need to make things.

Many more old-fashioned factories are likely to go out of business in this country unless significant investment is made in the manufacturing sector’s automation.

Rival producers in this country may not automate, but companies on the other side of the world will.

Global competitors are the most likely to steal a British company’s next order and those with the leanest most automated manufacturing process will surely grab market share.

During a period when hourly wages have doubled, the real price of robots has halved.

Mass production has pushed down prices, while flexibility and functionality have hit new peaks.

Most machines will pay for themselves within two years and give an average service life of 15 years.

Coming out of the recession is a good time to take business from competitors, especially as it is easier to implement new systems when not running at full capacity.

There are deals to be done on prices and, when the market improves, the company will be leaner and more productive.

Automation can reduce the production process’s labour costs, by using robots to load machine tools, handle raw materials, pick and place components, offload conveyors and replace many manual tasks.

Robots also ease the worry of recruiting, training and retaining labour.

However, automation shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a threat to the workforce, but as a means of becoming more productive and competitive, thereby protecting jobs.

Automation increases the revenue generated per employee and allows machine-tenders to be reassigned more demanding tasks.

Industrial robots are designed to work 24 hours a day and seven days a week, with limited downtime.

Current health-and-safety standards mean restrictions on heavy lifting, handling hazardous materials and working in explosive environments for manual workers, with strict legal sanctions for employers.

So when the task is potentially difficult or dangerous, a robot can do it instead.

Meeting energy reduction and carbon footprint targets is easier, because today’s servo-controlled robots use less power than hydraulic or pneumatic machinery and can operate in darkened or unheated environments.

Robots will also turn off power-consuming peripherals and require less airflow velocity in closed booths.

The extreme precision and repeatability of modern industrial robots leads to fewer defective parts, minimal scrap and less raw-material wastage.

Process fluids such as paint and coatings are applied accurately, while vision systems will detect faulty products on fast-moving conveyors.

Faster cycle times for automated processes and the capacity for robots to work timelessly without any drop-off in performance add up to greatly increased throughput.

Unattended lights-out production also extends the working week without having to take on extra labour.

Robots can work more precisely than humans, with outstanding repeatability, and can readily cope with the growing miniaturisation of parts.

That means better finishes, cleaner welds and more accurate positioning, which translates into improved quality and premium prices.

The automated handling of machine tools, parts and materials will maximise the utilisation of existing machining centres by as much as 95 per cent.

Using robots to replace manual operators for managing tools and loading or unloading workpieces will enable machines to keep running 24/7.

Industrial robots have compact bases and working envelopes and can also be installed on the ceiling or walls, saving valuable industrial floorspace.

A number of compact robot workcells could also be fitted into the same work area to increase production capacity without adding heating, lighting or real-estate costs.

Industrial robots increase flexibility in the manufacturing process, whether it’s their ability to handle multiple products in one process, the multi-function flexibility of performing different concurrent tasks or the capacity for reprogramming and deploying as the product mix changes.

This in turn helps reduce time-to-market and in-process inventory.

Flexible automation is better than fixed or hard automation, because it allows the manufacturing process to be more versatile and agile.

Production is moving away from constant, unchanged processes, to greater variety in product lines and shorter life cycles, where the low cost of changeover gives robots strategic value.

Superior precision and output that is unaffected by tiredness or inattention translates into enhanced product quality and consistency, while increased throughput and energy savings lead to reduced costs.

If full automation is too expensive, companies should consider semi-automation, which entails implementing a robot workcell for a specific production process.

A strategic, affordable automated workcell can eliminate a production bottleneck, remove a hazardous manual function and cut associated labour costs.

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