Robots: boosting efficiency and safety for small manufacturers

Next generation automated technology is providing an innovative solution to critical issues facing many small food manufacturers, while also streamlining the production cycle to boost safety and efficiency.

A new generation of lightweight robots means small food manufacturers in Australia can now enjoy the benefits of automation, previously only available to larger organisations. Many small businesses are turning to robotic technology to transform the entire lifecycle of the food manufacturing process. In fact, the recent interest by small food manufacturers has pushed Australian robotic purchases to record highs.

Through the implementation of new lightweight and compact robots, food manufacturers are now able to build a modern manufacturing workplace – automating industrial processes and upgrading the labour force to operate machines instead of having staff perform monotonous and repetitive manual tasks.

Man or machine
Industrial robots have long excelled at the kind of manually repetitive tasks that employees can find undesirable. Indeed, large food manufacturers in Australia have long used robotics in food processing throughout the production process.

More recently, small manufacturers have turned to more affordable robots to help free-up staff from unstimulating or labour-intensive roles. In small manufacturing facilities, even skilled workers can spend more than 32 hours per week on repetitive activities such as picking or packaging.

Lightweight industrial robots can take over these activities, while also significantly slashing the time taken to complete each action. For example, in a small bottling plant a single robot is able to complete the packaging process more than 35 percent faster than manual handling. The robot is used to pick-up two or three bottles simultaneously from the production line every 2.5 seconds, orienting them, and placing them in the packing machine.

Such a set-up can enable organisations to utilise staff more effectively – freeing them up to perform more skilled activities, such as operating machinery. 

A move to modularity
Today’s emerging manufacturing technologies are extremely adaptable – both in terms of function and the way they integrate into the overall production process. The highly configurable new technologies can significantly improve throughput time – particularly in the areas of preparation and set-up, as well as reducing inspection and put-away time.

For industrial robots, the push for lightweight machines means they can be mounted on the wall or shifted from one location to another, adding flexibility to the manufacturing process, thereby saving money on valuable real estate costs. This is a significant advantage for manufacturers when they choose to expand, move or grow their production line.

Also, small batch and seasonal productions are no longer stumbling blocks for businesses as the robots can be relocated with ease without the need to overhaul the floor layout and can be assigned to carry out different tasks in accordance with demand.

One of the most appealing aspects of the new generation of industrial robotics to small businesses is that they no longer require specialist knowledge to operate. Modern machines can now be completely reconfigured and deployed for any number of tasks in a matter of hours by almost any employee, instead of relying on engineers, therefore avoiding high fees. Lightweight robots now use a drag and drop interface more commonly found on consumer devices. Programming can be done via a teach pendant whereby the user-friendly interface allows the programmer to drag and drop the routines to do their programming. This functionality is very similar to an iPad, allowing manufacturers to take full advantage of all the production benefits of a dedicated production line.

Safety and cost
Of course there are many other considerations when investing in new technology – including the wellbeing of employees and ROI.

Manufacturing roles often consist of labour-intensive manual tasks. These are potentially highly dangerous activities, yet the reality is that for many employees this will constitute a large part of their working week.

Injuries related to both repetitive manual handling and workplace accidents cost the Australian economy millions of dollars every year. Packing and production lines in small operations are particularly risky. However, in contrast to traditional industrial robots in the market, small and lightweight robots can work collaboratively with staff.

Collaborative robots, or “co-bots” (in the majority of cases) don’t require safety shielding, enabling staff to work side-by-side with the robots.

Of course, the business benefit of industrial robotics goes well beyond just safety, with affordability also being one of the main business considerations. During the past few years industrial robots have become increasingly cost-effective. In most instances the investment in a lightweight industrial robot can be recouped in just over a year, and the total initial ownership cost is very low compared to many traditional robots. 

The ease of programming, integration and after sales maintenance means manufacturers save about 30 to 40 percent in integration costs compared to other traditional industrial robots in the market. 

Lightweight robot technology is helping small food manufacturers transform their production lines, while retaining skilled workers and creating a safe workplace environment where employees can work side-by-side with a robotic counterpart.

Shermine Gotfredsen is business development manager at Universal Robots Asia Pacific.

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