Machinery Edges Towards Autonomy And Automation

(Above: Fanuc’s CR-35iA collaborative robot has a payload of 7kg. Credit: Fanuc)

Andy Pye looks at the ever-increasing impact of automation and autonomy on a wide spectrum of sectors and specialisations – from standard machine tools and general manufacturing to food processing and pharmaceuticals production lines.

In its industrial strategy, the Government has identified five sectors likely to receive government support: nuclear, life sciences, low-emission vehicles, Industry 4.0 and the creative sector. Of these, the one of most interest to machinery designers is Industry 4.0 and related technologies. The Government has earmarked £4.7 billion in funding for R&D to help industries including robotics, artificial intelligence, 5G mobile technology and smart energy.
“The Fourth Industrial Revolution is the biggest change in UK manufacturing in a generation,” said Jo Britton, marketing director of the manufacturers’ organisation EEF. “Our survey of manufacturers reveals that 80% believe that 4IR will be an industry reality by 2025. At EEF, we’re working with them to ensure they are on the right track to take advantage of the opportunities that new technologies bring, and to prepare and train the workforce with the types of skills needed for the future.”

Hot Topics

  • Digitisation is moving fast and industry needs to work together to stay on top
  • Over 1.7 million new industrial robots predicted in world’s factories by 2020
  • Tending robots are delivering huge rises in productivity
 
 
“The digitisation of manufacturing is real and is happening at pace, but this speed could create major winners and losers unless all of industry moves together,” said Chris Richards, head of Business Environment Policy at EEF. “The opportunities are significant but there are barriers to adoption of new digital technologies that could stop us moving up the ranks – particularly the need for better leadership and a culture shift on innovation to boost adoption, especially among SMEs.”

ROBOTS - FRIENDS OR FOES?

Agriculture without manpower: an unmanned robot working in the fields


Last year, the World Economic Forum said that more than seven million jobs were at risk from advances in technology in the world’s largest economies over the next five years. The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, laid out an even more concerning possibility: He said that up to 15 million jobs in Britain alone are at risk of being lost to robots. A Chinese delivery warehouse in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, recently hit the headlines after a mesmerising video of its little orange robots sorting parcels went viral. Showcasing these cushion-sized robots darting around the large warehouse at speed, it highlighted how close technology has come to performing tasks currently undertaken by human workers.
But Phil Chesworth, managing director at Midland Pallet Trucks, rebuffs the idea and underlines the importance of humans in the workplace.
“While it’s true that robots can perform some tasks just as well as humans, relying on robots and technology for every aspect of a business could be detrimental,” he said. “Simple, repetitive processes will usually provide a place for robots to shine, but when processes get more complex, this is where robots fall flat. Unlike robots, humans can create, form relationships, and respond to out of the ordinary situations should one arise. Building relationships with suppliers and customers, and being able think on their feet is something only conscious humans can do.”
The lower the labour cost in an economy, the lower the incentive to automate, which may go some way to explaining the relatively low take-up of robotics in the UK. Even so, robots are starting to appear in unfamiliar surroundings, including agriculture and construction, where they may hold part of the answer to impending Brexit-related labour shortages.
The wealth creation of moving to robots may need to be dispersed in more innovative and equitable ways if our society is to be protected from the consequences of automation.

IFR releases world robotics data

By 2020, according to the International Robotics Federation (IFR), more than 1.7 million new industrial robots will have been installed in factories around the world. Today, the strongest growth in the robotics industry is in Asia – led by China as the world’s number one marketplace.
Robot manufacturers are already developing and commercializing new service models, based on real-time data collected by sensors attached to robots. Analysts predict a rapidly growing market for ‘cloud robotics’ in which data from one robot is compared with data from other robots in the same or different locations. The cloud network will be used to optimize parameters of the robot’s movement, such as speed, angle or force. Ultimately, the advent of big data in manufacturing could redefine the industry boundaries between equipment makers and manufacturers.

Tending robots on the rise

ABB’s machine-tending robots are designed to work with minimal supervision (Credit: ABB)


The Manufacturing Technologies Association (MTA) estimates an annual turnover of around £1.75 billion within the UK machine tool industry, of which 75% is exported. Within this sector, machine tending is vital to the creation of products. The opportunity to improve performance is already knocking on the door of the machine tool sector.
ABB’s machine tending robots can process batches large and small, with program switchovers made simple using an intuitive Human Machine Interface (HMI). Operators need only to load a batch of parts onto a conveyor, select the suitable program and leave the robot to process them. This approach means that just one operator – who need not be an engineer – can supervise many machines.
Castings PLC is one example of a UK manufacturer that has successfully used robot machine tending to increase exibility and productivity. It specialises in the production of 2500 different metal components for vehicles.

ABB’s machine tending robots have helped users increase output by 50% (Credit: ABB)


Previously, the company’s CNC grinding machines were loaded and unloaded manually, with one operator assigned to handle two machines. An ABB robot machine tender was introduced, which incorporated a feedline conveyor belt and imaging system. Since its introduction, exibility has increased through the ease of operation which the robot cells offer. Operators, for example, can change the cells to handle different component types within 10 minutes.
Productivity has also significantly improved with a 50% increase in output. This is because some of the fettling processes are also performed by the robot. Finally, the machine cells no longer need to be supervised as closely as before. An individual operator now supervises four machines, leading to improved worker efficiencies as well as better safety.

Luxury packaging drives growth

Rotech’s off-line Auto sleeve and carton friction feeder has been developed in response to the coding and handling challenges of the latests ‘lift-the-flap’-style luxury pack sleeves (Credit: Rotech)


The market for luxury packaging will be worth $17.6 billion by 2019, compared with 14.2 billion in 2014, according to the market research consultancy Neil Farmer Associates.
“This impacts coding, by adding to the pressure for manufacturers to maximise versatility,” he says. “Rising demand for added-value packaging and the introduction of new technology and innovations is driving this growth.”
Offline coding is an increasingly attractive option for companies in industries such as food and pharmaceuticals, especially since unusual pack designs and the need to maintain a high-end nish can prove challenging for online solutions on today’s fast-paced production lines.
Rotech has developed its new off-line RF Auto sleeve and carton friction feeder in response to the coding and handling challenges of the latest ‘lift-the- flap’-style luxury pack sleeves. Without any human intervention, the system’s patented auto-gate feature automati- cally adjusts to accommodate the varying thickness of each at pack.
In addition to being able to handle cartons and sleeves, the design of the RF Auto allows for a range of pouch/Doy bag type products to be handled (Doy Bags are a range of bags, purses and accessories made from recycled juice packs by a women’s cooperative in the Philippines). This combines with a range of other features to deliver a signi cant increase in coding productivity.

The small size of the RF Auto makes it easy to move between production lines (Credit: Rotech)


The RF Auto stack-to-stack feeder combines with a non-contact thermal inkjet coder or continuous inkjet coder to o er complete, off-line overprinting. This enables users to overprint essential information onto the latest cardboard sleeves, which can vary considerably in thickness.
Simple controls and the use of quick-set hopper guides also help keep downtime to a minimum. This added versatility boosts productivity by elimi- nating set-up time and minimising sleeve waste, which can otherwise cost up to £20k per annum in a typical coding operation. In addition, the RF Auto can handle a larger stack height, increasing the number of packs per run by around 20% and calling for less frequent operator interventions.

Robot health – the bottom line

Robots in production lines work tirelessly and with micrometre precision – unless, of course, a component fails. But what if you could know when a component in a machine is about to break? A wishful dream for industry, but also a scenario that’s not too far away.
“Cheaper and more powerful sensors and new methods for analysing large data volumes (Big Data) provide completely new opportunities to investigate the performance and state of machines in industry,” said Basim Al-Najjar, Professor of Terotechnology at Linnaeus University (Smaland, southern Sweden).
“It’s not just about saving money and improving the working environment of the manufacturing companies,” Al-Najjar continued. “Machine manufacturers can also benefit from collected data, to improve the quality of the machines they make.”
A research team led by Andreas Schutze at Saarland University (Saar- brucken, Germany) has developed an early warning system for industrial assembly, handling and packaging processes. Their system subjects machines to what is e ectively a continuous medical check-up. The human equivalent would be equipping a person with an activity tracker, a continuous digital ECG and a blood pressure monitor so that their state of health could be analysed at any time and in considerable detail.
Regular health checks save human lives; predictive maintenance saves machinery, cuts downtime and boosts profitability.