It seems to be a given that more and better machines must be good. But what’s really driving industrial investment?
There’s a joke in industry circles: “What’s the factory of the future?” Answer: “A thousand robots, a man and a dog.” “Why the dog?” “To bite the man if he touches anything.”
Whatever the size of your operation, the key business drivers that lead companies towards automation are no laughing matter. Faced with increasingly competitive markets, often an overriding driver for manufacturers is cost reduction. But that is by no means the full picture.
Investment in automation, from robots to programmable controllers and the vast array of software available to complement the technology, can reduce labour costs and improve product consistency, quality and repeatability. It also enables faster throughput, more flexible manufacturing and provides links to enable manufacturing and logistics data to interface with other business systems.
The benefits of automation are well recognised for high-volume production, such as cars and consumer electronics. But increasingly it is used for low-volume, high-value production, such as aircraft components, and even low-volume, low-value products such as making sandwiches or pre-cooked meals.
Gary Wyles, managing director of system supplier Festo, says: “Automation is moving down the line in the food sector, using technology like our bionic arm to handle raw food and processes previously considered difficult or impossible.”
Flexibility is often a business driver for automation. Brian Holliday, divisional director of Siemens Automation, says: “Manufacturing plants are more complex than ever before and typically have to handle multiple products on the same line. The right automation, whether using robots or other solutions, allows manufacturers to mass customise, gaining from the lessons learned in the auto industry which has led the way.”
This kind of flexibility links in with the concepts of lean manufacturing: the elimination of all forms of waste and the idea of “build-to-order”, where products are made only when there is a specific customer for them.
In the automotive industry, which has pioneered this, different models of car now go down the same production lines, and the robots – and the humans who work alongside them on many tasks – are programmed to know exactly what each individual vehicle is, and the different components or operations that are needed.
This kind of production system links closely to business systems such as order processing from customers and automated stock control systems for ordering components and sub-assemblies from the supply chain. It is also fundamental to traceability: the idea that individual parts and assemblies can be tracked from source to final product through barcodes or ID tags, providing accountability to customers and information to everyone involved with the product.
“Well-integrated automation can feed information into a high-level dashboard, so you can monitor and optimise performance across the plant for improved productivity, efficiency and overall equipment effectiveness,” says Mark Daniels, business leader for architecture and software at Rockwell Automation.
Flexibility is one big business benefit from automation; consistent quality and repeatability of operations is another one, almost at the opposite end of the business spectrum. If lots of companies, such as automakers, have moved into an era of mass customisation of products, then there are still plenty of others where the big virtue from automation is that every product that rolls off the end of the production line is guaranteed to be identical.
Mindless, repetitive tasks are what humans don’t do well, but automation systems enjoy. Not just the manufacturing tasks, too, but the inspection and quality control checking during the process and at the end of the line as well. Vision systems and other control technologies link into automation equipment: the line between control systems and automation systems is a blurred one.
Both the food and pharmaceutical sectors have deployed automation to improve quality and traceability, with the links back into enterprise-wide databanks so production can be monitored and optimised. You get better consistency and quality, and if things go wrong the source of the problem is identified quickly and accurately. Food also points to other, perhaps less obvious benefits. Wyles at Festo says automation of food processing can drive up quality and extend shelf-life, as there is less contact with human hands.
Energy saving is a potential outcome, too. Fosters Bakery in Barnsley uses a robot for loading and unloading a reel oven, previously loaded by hand. The robot loads and unloads bun trays continuously, where manual unloading left the rotating oven with empty shelves. Productivity has increased by 80 per cent and energy consumption has been cut by 50 per cent, as the oven runs full rather than half empty. Furthermore, the £100,000 robot was less than half the price of Fosters Bakery buying a new oven to boost production.
Cost saving is a benefit that can apply to all forms of automation, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a heavy outlay. “Most small businesses would be surprised at the value automation can bring at relatively low cost,” says Holliday at Siemens. “You can start by automating machines with control devices that are not much more costly than the central heating controller for your home.”
But not every benefit is in monetary terms. Improved safety is also an important driver for automation, as companies face concerns about health and safety, repetitive strain injury or back problems from manual handling operations.
“It’s hard for companies to complain about budgetary issues when safety is involved,” says Maurice Hanley of robot supplier Fanuc. “Robots can handle repetitive tasks safely and efficiently, working in hazardous environments or handling hazardous products if necessary. Concerns about health and safety and potential litigation should be a strong argument for automation.”
There is a perception that the key value automation provides is simply to reduce labour content and cut costs. Nigel Platt at ABB Robotics says: “The cost of running a robot is less than the minimum wage on a per-hour basis.” But, he adds, this is too simplistic a view: the real benefits come from the increase of productivity, quality and efficiency that boosts a company’s competitive position and growth.
And there’s a warning from Wyles: “Automation is a multiplier. If your process is inefficient, then you will become more inefficient with automation. However, if your processes are lean, then applying automation can enhance efficiency and give you a competitive edge.”
Case study 1 – Perkins Engines
Revving up to recovery
A diesel engine manufacturer has bounced back from the recession by investing in robots
Perkins Engines in Peterborough, a subsidiary of Caterpillar Inc, has turned around since 2005 from being reliant on manual production to a highly automated plant. “We’ve gone from five robots per 10,000 employees to about 140 in the Peterborough plant – on a par with German investment levels,” says advanced planning manager Andy Wheatcroft.
Perkins makes diesel engines for off-road vehicles: construction and agricultural machines, mainly. With a long history of cell manufacturing and linking operations to optimise the production of small batches, Perkins has long been a UK leader in production technology.
But it still faced heavy competition from the low-labour cost economies of Asia. Wheatcroft claims that the £5 million investment in robotics negates the labour cost advantages of low-cost economies. “Though we operate in a high labour cost environment, using robots guarantees repeatable quality, consistency and cost competitiveness,” he says.
“Flexible automation brings unit cost down to less than the price of shipping units from China. Even if their labour costs were zero, it negates their advantage, despite the fact that we operate in one of the highest labour cost environments here in the UK.”
The recession hurt Perkins’s business, with its main customers badly affected, but investment in the Fanuc robots boosted competitiveness and has enabled the plant to be in a good position to take advantage of recovery. The company is now redeploying people to higher skill positions in more value-added operations and Wheatcroft says: “We’re growing our overall employment as sales volumes have increased”.
Case study 2 – Bassetts Allsorts
Sweet on automation
Bassetts’ army of robots is growing and with it comes cost savings and improved safety
Bassetts, part of the Cadbury group, is known for its liquorice allsorts, but it also makes jelly babies and other sweets. In 2008 it invested in three ABB palletising robots under a £1 million programme, and recently installed a further four. And four more will follow for tray handling and filling.
“Our main goal for robot investment is cost reduction. At the same time we are removing manual handling and redeploying people on different, value-added tasks in the Sheffield plant,” says project engineer Dave Hough.
The robots are designed to increase throughput and eliminate human error on repetitive processes in handling operations.
Hough maintains that investment in automation will support and improve the global competitive position of the plant, which was part of Kraft’s recent purchase of Cadbury.
“Our two main drivers are cost reduction and safety,” he says. “Robots remove all manual handling, eliminating the risk of back injuries or repetitive strain.”
But there are efficiency gains, too: “We have also improved technical skills by automating machinery, with faster fault fixing and improved overall equipment effectiveness.”
Brian Davis is an awarding-winning industry journalist and regular contributor to The Manufacturer and Professional Engineering.