Investing in robots costs less than expected

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Martin Walder, Managing Director for ABB UK's robotics division, argues that UK manufacturers - including small to medium-sized businesses - need to consider investing in robots if they are to remain globally competitive.

UK manufacturers should take a serious look at investment in robotics and automated plants if they want to maintain a strong position against competitors around the world.

ABB is suggesting ten top reasons why UK manufacturers should consider robot technology in a drive to educate UK companies on the benefits of using robots.

A campaign is being launched against a backdrop that shows the UK has been amongst the lowest purchasers of robots in recent years, behind countries such as Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Australia and Canada. ABB estimates that by the end of 2006 only 800 new robots will be sold in the UK by all robot suppliers. This compares with more than 1000 sold by ABB alone in France.

Martin Walder coments: "The potential to improve productivity, increase profitability and achieve substantial growth, is, we believe, well documented. Manufacturing in Western Europe - without improved productivity through the use of automation - will find it harder to compete effectively against aggressive overseas competitors. Robots can provide the answer. However, UK manufacturers also need to be educated about the long-term benefits of using robots in their plant."

The key to competitiveness

A compelling reason to buy robots is their ability to play a major role in helping boost the competitiveness of UK industrial companies, particularly SMEs, by delivering improvement in three key areas:

1. Reducing overheads

UK companies face some of the highest overhead levels compared to their competitors in other countries, making competitiveness a struggle. One reason for this is the comparatively high cost of labour in the UK. According to estimates by the International Federation for Robotics (IFR), average wages in the UK increased by 74 per cent in real terms between 1990 and 2005 to around £10.51 per hour, excluding any additional costs associated with training, health and safety and employee administration.

In the same period, the cost of a six-axis industrial robot has fallen by 50 per cent, enabling robots to offer a typical hourly operating expense of just £5, making them competitive even against low-cost labour.

Robots are also useful for combating the spiralling cost of energy in the UK, which saw industrial users facing increases of 47 per cent for gas and 34 per cent for electricity in 2005 alone. With no requirement for minimum lighting or heating levels, robots offer companies a great opportunity to cut their energy bills. Current estimates, for example, point to a potential saving of 8 per cent for every 1degC reduction in heating levels, while savings of up to 20 per cent can be achieved by turning off unnecessary lighting.

2. Increased productivity

The ability of robots to produce more units at a faster rate and at a consistent level of quality is another major argument in their favour compared to human operators.

Walder says: "Even the most efficient human worker can make mistakes, particularly when working to a tight deadline or on a repetitive task. In contrast, robots offer companies a fantastic opportunity to increase the number of units they produce without adversely impacting on quality, no matter how tedious or unpleasant the task."

Furthermore, with none of the costs associated with human operators, the cost per unit can also be reduced, further enhancing competitiveness.

3. Predictability

Walder comments: "Investment in the UK's engineering base is critical if the country is to compete with the likes of Germany, Japan and even China. However, there seems to be a general uncertainty about manufactured goods in the UK that affects the willingness of manufacturers to make longer-term investments. Without investment then you are resigned to go overseas. But SMEs simply do not have the economies of scale to do things overseas."

The predictability of robotic technology makes it excellent for addressing this dilemma. By delivering consistent performance with minimal overheads, robots can help companies to more confidently predict factors such as cost of production, turnaround times, output levels and product quality, which can, in turn, be used to inform future investment.

Simple to implement

Another barrier to robot use is the belief that the technology is too sophisticated for most basic manufacturing applications. "Robot technology is mature. It is well tried and tested and the variety of robots available means that virtually any manufacturing line can benefit from the technology. It is no longer the domain of large-scale manufacturers like the automotive sector. Small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) are the greatest benefactor – they just do not seem to realise it yet!"

ABB's campaign, "10 ways to unlock your plant's robot potential", attempts to de-mystify robot technology and jargon and sets out to prove that robots really are simple to use. Walder says: "We know robots can benefit SMEs in the UK because of the successes we have seen achieved by those we have already worked with."

Application example

As an example, ABB highlights Cornish SME, Characteristix, which makes badges, magnets and keyrings together with other moulded plastic items. Characteristix realised that if it did not change its way of working, then the business would close against stiff competition from low-cost Far East manufacturers.

It transformed its labour-intensive moulding and printing process into a fully automated system. The result is a self-contained manufacturing cell that creates virtually finished products from raw materials.

The manufacturing cell - comprising of an ABB six-axis IRB 140 robot, plastic injection moulding machine, beam robot, conveyors, and pneumatic printing press - is helping Characteristix retain a competitive edge, even when pitted against the Far East 'giants' of the industry.

Not only has the cell ramped up production, but it has brought interest and variety to many of the production workforce. Andy Knight of Characteristix comments: "Many of our staff, who were previously employed on manual labouring tasks, have risen to the challenge of robot-based manufacturing, readily participating in robot programming and operator tuition to enhance their skills."

10 ways to unlock your plant's potential

  1. Reduce labour costs
  2. Improve product quality/obtain a more even quality
  3. Improve quality of work by eliminating hazardous, heavy and/or repetitive work cycles
  4. Increase output rate
  5. Increase product flexibility
  6. Reduce material waste
  7. Comply with safety rules
  8. Reduce labour turnover/difficulty of recruiting workers
  9. Reduce capital costs (inventory, work-in-progress, floor space, etc)
  10. Space saving
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