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Barry Weller of Mitsubishi Electric assesses the role that robots play in the UK manufacturing sector in helping modern production reduce costs and become adaptable for future changes.

According to Weller, the UK manufacturing industry faces a variety of challenges in its efforts to regenerate, but without doubt one of the most significant is the need to operate in a high-wage economy while still producing goods that are competitive with those from low-wage regions of the world.

As UK manufacturers cannot match the pay rates of some overseas competitors, the only viable solution is to reduce the labour content in UK-manufactured products.

This means making the best possible use of automation; however, just how that automation will be implemented must be carefully considered in the light of a second important requirement in today’s manufacturing sector – the need for flexibility.

It was once satisfactory to build custom-engineered automated production lines dedicated to a particular type and style of product.

At that time, there would be reasonable confidence that the plant could be used without major changes for five years or longer – time enough to recoup the setup investment.

Today’s product lifecycles are, however, typically much shorter, so production lines in most areas of manufacturing must now be flexible enough to adapt easily and inexpensively to the regular introduction of new products or significant redesigns.

Flexibility is one of the major benefits offered by industrial robots, as they are essentially general-purpose tools that can be readily adapted for new tasks simply by reprogramming them.

Robots are, therefore, the ideal basis for many modern manufacturing automation systems.

With this in mind, it might be expected that robots would have been embraced by UK businesses, but the reality has been rather different.

In fact, said Weller, UK manufacturers have been slow in their uptake of robot technology, lagging behind their competitors in many other developed countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and Sweden.

There is, however, some evidence that this situation is changing.

A recent survey by the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA) showed that, in the first two quarters of 2010, UK robot sales grew by 55 per cent compared with the figures for 2009.

BARA reported that most of this growth came not from the automotive industry, where the use of robots is well established, but from the food and beverage sector as well as from the pharmaceutical and healthcare sector.

This suggests that a wider cross section of UK manufacturers is starting to appreciate the benefits that robots can provide.

But there is still a long way to go, since BARA also reported that the UK is far from being alone with its current surge of investment in robots.

Sales are, in fact, increasing in almost every country; worldwide growth of around 27 per cent is predicted for 2010, with particularly strong growth in China, Korea and other Southeast Asian countries.

According to Weller, it is worth reviewing the benefits that modern robots, such as those in Mitsubishi’s Melfa range, have to offer.

Modern robots, he added, combine speed with accuracy, making them suitable for use in most demanding high-volume production applications.

Unlike human employees, robots can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Production lines incorporating robots can, therefore, be operated for however many hours are necessary to satisfy customer demand and to get the best possible return on investment in the production plant.

There is another benefit that is often not fully appreciated – robots are not especially fussy about their working conditions.

This means that, in many cases, big economies can be made on the amount of heating and lighting that would be required if human workers were employed to carry out similar tasks.

This not only results in lower energy bills, but also in a reduced carbon footprint.

Compact design is another characteristic of modern robots, which means that using them can save valuable space on the factory floor.

Often they can also be used in areas such as those adjacent to fast-moving machinery, where a human operator would not be allowed to work unless expensive guarding and other safety features were provided.

It is worth noting that today’s robots are also suitable for incorporation in existing production lines.

Then there are the issues of reliability and consistent performance, according to Weller.

As the best modern robots incorporate technologies such as brushless AC servomotors, they have very long service lives and require little maintenance.

In addition, when used in conjunction with absolute position encoders, these servo systems ensure precise and repeatable operation.

Scrap and reject rates are, therefore, minimised, again leading to increased efficiency and reduced costs.

Finally, some companies still have ethical concerns over the use of robots as they are, more than other forms of automation, seen as displacing human operators.

In truth, however, robots almost always do repetitive tedious tasks, for which it is difficult to recruit human employees.

There is another issue: if human operators are used for these menial tasks and are rewarded with a modest rate of pay, there is a high probability that the goods produced will be less competitive than those produced on robot lines.

This could lead to the business shrinking, with a loss of jobs, rather than growth.

Weller claims that there are, therefore, sound reasons for arguing that using robots actually protects jobs rather than eliminating them.

Modern robots are affordable, cost effective in operation, simple to install and set up, versatile, reliable and efficient, he said.

They are suitable for a range of manufacturing operations in almost every sector, and suppliers such as Mitsubishi can provide application advice and support.

If the UK manufacturing industry is to make the most of its current opportunities for growth, it must be prepared to embrace the benefits that robot-based automation offers, added Weller.

Mitsubishi Electric Automation Systems

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