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Technology advances in robotics shorten ROI times

With manufacturers facing the rising cost of labour, a shortage of skilled workers and cheap competition from overseas, there is no question that operating in Australian industry today is tough.

However, investing in new technology to tackle these setbacks is often considered an insurmountable task.

According to Headland general manager, Robotics and Automation, Greg Sale, manufacturers need to be aware that remaining 'traditional' in the manufacturing realm can be detrimental to one's business, and investing in new technology such as robotics and automation can be fruitful in the long-term.

"Many small manufacturers don't think they are big enough to automate, and this can be the beginning of the end for them. We have a responsibility to these smaller companies to help them understand how cost-effective, safe, reliable and easy-to-use good automation is," Sale told PACE magazine.

With suppliers constantly improving their robotics and automation offerings – especially in the areas of speed and power consumption – 'investing to save' is the mantra many smart manufacturers are adopting.

"Presently the Federal Government will even assist with the cost of replacing old, energy-hungry robots with robots that have a proven power reduction feature like Kuka's PROFIenergy profile [distributed by Headland], which reduces the robot's energy consumption by as much as 90%," Sale said.

"Is it a good time to invest in robotics… and specifically to the manufacturers who don't have robotics at present, those who make a lot of repeat product, or those with sound vision and business plans it's a great time to invest in robot based automation, probably the best I have seen in over 20 years.

"Don't dismiss automation as too expensive or not right for your manufacturing. In the end you are experts in your field, and likewise so are we. Just ask.

"I consider that giving the right initial advice is imperative, from the benefits to the downsides, and whether automation is the right direction, or whether that skilled person is actually making you a lot of money and shouldn't be replaced," advises Sale.

This Headland Kuka robot incorporates the PROFIenergy profile which can reduce the robot's energy consumption by as much as 90 percent.[The Headland Kuka robot pictured alongside incorporates the PROFIenergy profile which can reduce the robot's energy consumption by as much as 90 percent.]

Robotic Automation marketing officer, Peter Davis, agrees that the market's need to reduce day-to-day manufacturing costs is a compelling reason to take the plunge.

"You can't better your production without investing in it. Sitting still will allow the competition to get further ahead and 'bandaid solutions' will often cost more in the long run," he warned.

"Robots are becoming increasingly more efficient, and manufacturers can now utilise robots for an ever-increasing range of applications – not just in the production line, but further afield such as in warehousing and distribution.

"A lot of improvement has been made in minimising the foot-print of robots while increasing the dexterity with added axes of movement."

Davis cites a project performed by Robotic Automation, in which the company's SIA20 robot allowed a CNC machine to be automatically tended without increased floor-space and without blocking operator access. 

"This example shows how the latest robotics can adapt to the plant without the plant having to adapt for automation," he said.

According to ABB Australia general manager – robotics, Olivier Coquerel, manufacturers would do well to consider robots in context of the bigger picture, rather than as a single solution. 

"I don't think you should invest in robotics because robots are now a little bit cheaper or because you can get them funded by a government grant. It has to be planned and be an integral part of your manufacturing strategy," he said.

"Most of our customers have different needs. Some of them in food and beverage are facing increasing demands for their products and need robots and automation to cope with the additional volume.

"Others just won contracts with a mining industry and use this opportunity to upgrade their production processes with innovative solutions which will improve their bottom line and put them in a better position to win further businesses."

Coquerel shares the following tips for manufacturers thinking about investing: "If you work two to three shifts then there are probably some good potential projects which will offer you a short return on investment.

"Also, if you are looking to improve productivity and reduce the material waste then you should look at robots to automate some tasks," he said.

"The best advice I can give you is: 1. work out in dollars what to try to achieve (e.g. increase my production by 20% which will give me an additional revenue of $XX; reduce my waste by 30% which will give me a saving of $XX); 2. talk to one of our experienced Australian Authorised Value Providers to see what solutions can be implemented to achieve your targets."

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