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Gauging the right level of automation

09 March 2023

George Thompson, chairman of the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA) looks at some of the misconceptions about automation particularly among SMEs

I WAS recently on the panel of a BARA (British Automation and Robot Association) roundtable on how we could potentially use Automation to help drive sustainability. We had a fantastic discussion and covered a number of points, however, we couldn’t answer all of the questions asked by the attendees during the live event. One of these questions has stuck in my mind as it was something that I have answered in various forms throughout my career. The question was about the opportunities for automation for SMEs and that the common misconception that Automation is only for larger companies.

This made me stop and think about how I offered an answer to this question. For me, it seems an obvious answer, but I guess this proves the saying that “You don’t know what you don’t know…”

In my answer, I offered that "some degree of automation could be utilised by most production facilities, even those labelled as cottage industries. Automation doesn’t always need to be large complex systems. Sometimes the right level of automation is a label application unit, case erector, case taping unit, case packer, or perhaps a semi-automated pallet wrapper. Maybe it’s a combination of any number of these items. The more important thing is to implement the right level of automation for the current business needs, at the right time, with a plan for growing the automation in line with, or just ahead of the business needs".

I have been involved in discussions with companies where they indicate that they produce one small batch of a product at a time and then change over to a different product. Later in the conversation, it will emerge those products are produced on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. This new piece of information changes the answer from ‘it’s not viable’ to ‘this will work’. The perception that automation is only for larger companies, in my opinion, often stems from the thought that automation is centred around complex robot programming and that you need to be a rocket scientist to understand how it works. Reality could not be further from the truth! Almost anyone can be taught how robot programming works and how to make basic changes. That wouldn’t make them a robot programmer, but more of a robot operator.

Robots are not the only part of automation that needs to be considered, and in some instances, are not even the right solution for a company’s needs. As I have already indicated, simple automation can make significant improvements to production efficiency. This first step can then be built on, and added to, as the company grows and frees up personnel to perform more value-added activities.

Another misconception is that automation is only for specific industries, like automotive manufacturing. Again, this isn’t correct. The reason that the automotive industry is highly automated is that they have a goal of removing manual interventions wherever possible. The products are designed to make automation possible. There is a tremendous amount that other industries could learn from this ethos and lots that other industry sectors could also teach Automotive companies.  From an automation perspective, there is little difference between handling a car body side or suspension component and handling a product in a packet or putting a box onto a pallet.

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