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Navigating the automation journey

19 June 2023

The latest insight from George Thompson, chairman of the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA)

I RECENTLY took part in an interview for a trade publication where I was asked a series of questions about robotics and automation and how I thought they could be used within a specific industry sector. I answered one question with a question of sorts.

The question was about the latest developments in robotics, and my answer was "That depends on how much the reader understands about robotics and automation". If they are early in their automation journey, everything is cutting edge. Whereas if a company is already experienced in at least the basics of automation then the answer is very different.

If a company is looking to dip its proverbial toe into the incredible world of automation, perhaps a collaborative robot could be a good starting point. One word of caution would be that despite what some may indicate, collaborative robots are subject to the same set of legislation as all other industrial robots and ignorance of the rules is never a valid defence in court.

This led to a discussion about what rules apply – and there are many – but the main ones are the Robot Standards (ISO 10218-1:2011 - Robots and robotic devices and ISO 10218-2:2011 - Robot systems and integration) and The Machinery Directive (Directive 2006/42/EC). In addition, there are others such as the HSE Manual Handling Operations Regulations which asks questions about how to reduce hazardous manual handling, specifically around the possibility of using automation or mechanisation to reduce the instances of manual handling. In fact, reducing manual handling risks could be a topic for a whole article all by itself!

All of this really got me thinking about how we as automation providers need to find a way of reaching a larger audience to introduce the many benefits of adopting automation. There is so much that automation can achieve, from improvements to production efficiency or waste reduction to quality improvements or gains in operative safety, to name just a few. There are also the ‘softer’ benefits like improving workplace morale by offering ‘better’ jobs to operatives by automating the menial or low ‘value add’ operations and leave the higher value add tasks to the humans.

And you knew that I couldn’t resist banging on the sustainability drum again, so here goes… IF existing and new equipment is interconnected and controlled by a central PLC, then the individual processes can increase or decrease production based on what is happening elsewhere within the production facility. As an example, if the production facility has 10 production processes for simplicity’s sake, and station 7 has an unplanned stoppage, stations 8 – 10 will eventually be starved of product while stations 1 – 6 will be over saturated.

The big issue with this is if one or more of the stations has a time sensitive component for this process or perhaps the product itself is time sensitive, then there is the risk of the product or component effectively becoming waste. One way of tackling would be to purge dispensing tubes of components that may be approaching their critical time or increasing / decreasing temperatures to extend the life of the product or components. Although this may seem like it could be increasing waste, it is more likely to prevent the entire batch needing to be purged by only wasting a small amount of the component to save the larger amount.

If you would like to start your automation journey, but don’t know where to start – I would highly recommend visiting AutomationUK and The Machine Vision Conference, which are both being held at the Coventry Building Society Arena in Coventry on 20-21 June. At these co-located and linked events, you will be able to meet with some of the Automation Industry’s leaders covering everything from safety devices to Robots to the latest developments in Vision technologies. I hope to meet you there on the BARA Stand!