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Smart factory role for cobots

04 November 2020

With the UK manufacturing industry under increasing pressure to deliver more at a lower cost, the coming years will see manufacturers take steps to create a completely 'smart' factory floor, says Martin Walder

Thanks to advancements in technologies, most notably the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), using smart technology is feasible for a greater number of manufacturers. However, a truly ‘smart factory’ is one that is completely digitised with a high level of automation and connectivity throughout its supply chain.

There is a significant increase in the demands for robots, and indeed cobots, due to rising wages and skill shortages. As automation developers introduce better sensing/vision capabilities, ever more complex applications can be tackled. More responsive safety systems will also allow cobots to work alongside humans with greater flexibility, improving productivity, hygiene and safety.

Robots are now completing tasks previously performed by humans, but in just a fraction of the time. Robots are being applied to the food and beverage industry to assist in functions including; packing, handling, quality control and even maintenance.

The ‘cobotics’ explosion

Like many industrial processes, food and drink production is at risk from human error, which can cause downtime, poor quality and product loss, ultimately increasing costs. To minimise these risks and protect the production line, we are seeing the introduction of ‘cobotics’ - compact, easy-to-use and collaborative robots to work alongside humans.

As automation developers introduce better sensing capability and more responsive safety systems, the application of robotic equipment will only increase – paving the way for improved interaction so that complex processes can be completed faster, more easily and more safely.

This change also brings benefits to skills-poor industry struggling to attract engineering expertise. The cobotics movement doesn’t replace humans, it simply frees up highly skilled workers time for more value-add activity.

Minimising risks

We are beginning to see how this collaboration can minimise risks to employees working on the factory floor. Robots can perform dangerous and repetitive jobs that are hazardous for humans, such cutting and slicing. In turn, workers can apply their skills elsewhere. Additionally, it eases the social implications of the trend, ensuring both parties can work in harmony towards productivity goals, while tackling the problem of engineering expertise retiring out of the workforce.

With increasingly sophisticated sensors and more highly functional robotic equipment, collaboration between humans and machines on the factory floor is imperative for uniformity and efficiency. This is because robots not only reduce the chances of human error, but also because they manage resources to achieve the best margin. For example, food manufacturers such as bakers have started to notice increased productivity and quality as a result of incorporating smart technologies into their equipment. Connecting these devices has shown it is possible to control speed, precision and the volume of ingredients, combining high turnover with consistent quality.

The journey to success

To truly maximise food lines, manufacturers should implement robotics and analytics. Ultimately, the best way to protect the food line from human error or equipment failure is to gather a greater insight into processes – with the capability to react in real-time. If we are to progress and take manufacturing to the next level, incorporating robotics into the production line is a vital part of this and the health and longevity of the sector relies on it.

Manufacturing operations that fail to adopt digital technologies will become marginalised

For the ‘robotics and cobotics’ movement to thrive, we must educate our workforce on its benefits and capabilities. With greater understanding comes greater implementation and proficiency. Over the next decade, we expect it to proliferate and for manufacturers to reap the benefits. Any manufacturing operations that fail to adopt digital technologies will become marginalised – if not lost. Ultimately, legacy/non-connected technologies do not fit into the digital ecosystem, where analysis and optimisation are fundamental.

Over time, more manufacturers will recognise the benefits of smart manufacturing. Until then, increased data insights and connectivity will lay solid foundations for new, more effective business models.

Martin Walder is VP industrial automation at Schneider Electric


Key Points

  • As better sensing capability and more responsive safety systems are developed, the application of robotic equipment is increasing
  • Robots can perform dangerous and repetitive jobs that are hazardous for humans; workers can apply their skills elsewhere
  • Robots can not only reduce the chances of human error, but also manage resources to achieve the best margin