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There's more to automation than robots

14 January 2022

In the first of his new regular columns for Controls, Drives & Automation, the recently appointed chairman of the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA), George Thompson looks at industrial automation beyond robots, and the importance of integrator knowledge

AS THE new chairman of BARA – the first in 12 years – I think it would only be proper to start with an introduction. To give you a little bit about my background, I have been fortunate enough to be able to be involved in the automation industry for nearly 20 years and have worked for a number of large robot manufacturers, on both the service and sales areas of business. I am currently robotic systems sales manager for Güdel Lineartec (UK), where I am responsible for the systems side of our business.

In my role as BARA Chairman, I head up the nine-strong BARA Council, which meets once a month. During the pandemic this has been virtually, however, we hoping to to start quarterly face-to-face meetings in the next few months, which we plan to hold at a members’ facilities. If you are a BARA Member and would like to host one of our meetings, please drop me an email at bara@ppma.co.uk and we can discuss how we can make this happen. The council also arranges regular Roundtable events where we put together a panel of industry leaders that debate a number of items around a central specific topic.

Integrated orchestra

One common misconception is that industrial robots are the beating heart of any automation solution. Please do not misunderstand me, they are very important, however there is far more to automation than ‘just’ the robot. Every piece of the puzzle fits together to form the total solution. Yes, some pieces may be bigger than others, but all are equally important. Whether it is the robot, conveyor, controls architecture, safety guarding, access control, light guarding, floor scanners, special purpose machines, carton erectors, case closure units, vision systems, switches, sensors, pallet dispensers, pallet wrappers, AGVs/AMRs, bowl feeders, end of arm tooling, jigs and fixtures  – or, in fact, any number of other components that are used in specific applications – every component needs to be integrated into an orchestra that enables everything to work together into an efficient solution that will provide years of faultless service. 

That brings me to one thing that is most often overlooked – the knowledge and experience of the chosen integrator. If you have spoken with me at length, I’m sure you will have heard me say that there is a huge difference between someone that can program a robot and a robot programmer. The same thing can be said for System Integrators. It can be a minefield trying to find THE company to work with. This is exactly why we have partnered with our ‘sister’ organisation in the USA, the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) to create the A3/BARA Robot Integrators’ Certification Scheme. This is the benchmark that can be used to evaluate UK robot integrators' technical knowledge and safety practices. 

Setting the standard

The scheme was born out of the need to standardise integrators' quality and workmanship, as well as recognising effective safety controls to help companies comply with the relevant regulations. Again, please do not think that I am implying that all integrators are bad, quite the opposite in fact. For BARA, it is about setting the standard that every integrator should follow, which in turn will give end users the confidence that all required legislation is complied with, and that the overall installation is to a good standard. More information can be found on the BARA website.

Why have I outlined all of this? Quite simply to show that there is far more to automation than robots. Here in the UK, we have one of the lowest uptakes of automation in the world. We currently sit at 24th on the International Federation of Robotics table, which is measured by the of number of robots per 10,000 employees. The global average is 126 robots per 10,000 employees, and the UK currently operates at 101 robots per 10,000 employees. For a country that prides itself on being at the forefront of technology, it is clearly not an ideal position to be in. 

Most of us will use the 3Ds – dull, dirty, dangerous – as the starting point for conversations about implementing automation, however there are other factors to consider. In our current market conditions, I frequently hear that companies are struggling to find and/or retain production operatives. This will obviously impede a company’s production output; however, it could be the starting point for a new and more productive future. 

Automation, when designed and installed to a high standard, can improve production output, reduce waste, and generally improve the overall efficiencies of most companies. It will also create better quality jobs for the operators, reduce the necessity for manual handling and generally improve the manufacturing environment.  

If you would like to start your automation journey, but don’t know where to start I highly recommend visiting the BARA web site www.ppma.co.uk/bara where we have outlined several topics under the Expert Advice section to give some initial information. And while you’re there, why not register for our next roundtable discussion?