Robotic trends in the manufacturing sector

Robots, particularly collaborative robots, are taking a large role in manufacturing and offer badly-needed flexibility.

By Stuart Coulton March 14, 2022
Courtesy: Omron, New Products for Engineers Database

The number of vacancies in manufacturing (according to the ONS) was 96,000 between October & December 2021 in the UK. Considering 18 months prior, vacancies were at an all-time low. Never before has the impact of labour shortages on the sector been so clearly evident. Simply put, manufacturers across multiple sectors are battling with growing consumer demand and a heightened requirement for manual, repetitive tasks and there are not enough people to fulfill it. Clearly, a shift change is needed and robots can help.

The uptake of industrial robots is varied across Europe with some countries such as Germany and Sweden investing heavily whilst other countries are not – namely the UK, the only G7 country with a below average robot density per 100k people. Even that is starting to change. According the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the UK’s robot density grew by 77% between 2015 and 2020, outstripping the 47% growth in the global average over the same period. This is partly down to necessity but also down to the divergence in potential applications, particularly with the influx of robots designed to work with people rather than instead of people. These two key issues are fueling each other but how is the landscape evolving and what can be expected moving forward?

Collaboration: Reduced risk robotics

Collaborative robots (cobots) have seen explosive growth across the continent over the last few years and experts say this will increase, with expected CAGR growth rates of up to 33% mooted.  Barriers to implementation of industrial robots have often been insurmountable, especially for SMEs. The financial risk, coupled with a lack of skills for design, implementation and maintenance have led many SMEs to view the technology as “out of reach.” Cobots have flipped all of this on its head.

Flexibility is a key trump card for cobots. Firstly, the ability to work alongside humans and perform complimentary tasks opens a new wealth of applications where some of the drudgery – heavy lifting for example – can be performed by a robot whereas the more delicate aspects of a task can still be performed by human workers. Add to this the ability to redeploy cobots much faster than traditional robotic systems, and that flexibility magnifies making the solution look like a very attractive, lower risk option for manufacturers across their respective value chains.

This flexibility and versatility, however, is not possible without the technical simplicity of collaborative robots. The intuitive software design environment and seamless integration into larger automation ecosystems allows faster upskilling of existing workers and maximum asset productivity.

Autonomy: Managed material movement

Moving things around factories has long been a challenge to achieve both efficiently and effectively, but the increased adoption of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) has enabled intra-facility transportation of raw materials, work-in-progress (WIP) and finished goods to become far more systematic and with minimal reliance on the most unreliable of resources – humans.

While growth of this technology is not as explosive as cobots, it is still significant with many analysts expecting global growth figures of between 10-15% per year over the next five years. This is driven, as with cobots, by the ever-increasing diversity of opportunities to implement this rapidly evolving technology. Initially, AMRs were limited to moving small sub-assemblies, primarily in the automotive sector, but we are now seeing them in a host of applications across all manufacturing sectors and even creeping into the service economy with applications such as food delivery robots and automated filing cabinets. However, the big boom for AMRs is in logistics, a sector which suffers from many of the same challenges as manufacturing, arguably more acutely in some cases. Mobile robots offer an enormous opportunity to automate the movement of goods throughout the various warehouse processes – with full traceability as an added bonus.

Providing additional growth opportunities for mobile robots, driven largely by the post-Covid economy is mobile sterilization. The ability to sterilize locations frequented by the general public cheaply, efficiently and at scale makes this type of application a perfect fit for AMR technology.

Finance: Inspiring investment innovation

Making the decision to deploy robots on a factory floor is a daunting one, particularly the first time. But, as the technology is evolving to reduce the implementation risk, so are the finance mechanisms. Moving forward, expect to see many more robots purchased via leasing or hire purchase plans as opposed to the traditional outright purchase. This enables investments to be accounted for as operational expenditure as opposed to capital expenditure – spreading the costs over a longer period.

In its extreme and coupled with other IIoT technologies, major installations are going down a route of Production-as-a-Service where OEMs are retaining ownership of machinery and manufacturers pay based on line output. This transfers ownership of service and maintenance to the OEM and further reduces investment risk for the manufacturer.

Start small and scale up

Cobots, AMRs and improved financial instruments will open up more and more opportunities for adoption of robotics across an increasing number of sectors. That first step, however, is a big one and one piece of advice often repeated by experts is to start small, prove the concepts and then scale at a pace that is right for the business. This way, it is possible to solve the issues generated by a lack of workers in a holistic and sustainable way that will have a positive impact on manufacturing businesses across Europe.

– This originally appeared on Control Engineering Europe’s website. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.


Stuart Coulton
Author Bio: Stuart Coulton is market development manager at Omron UK.