In an exclusive interview, Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director at obsolete industrial parts supplier, EU Automation talks to Jeremy Hadall, chief technologist of the Robotics and Automation division at the Manufacturing Technology Centre, an independent Research & Technology Organisation (RTO) with the objective of bridging the gap between academia and industry.
Wilkins: Tell me more about the HVM Catapult. How does robotics fit into the application?
Hadall: The High Value Manufacturing Catapult is a collection of seven research organisations that work with industry to translate ideas and technology concepts into commercial applications. The seven centres are spread across the UK and work with companies of all sizes, from the smallest manufacturer right through to multi-national organisations to deliver manufacturing excellence and the application of new manufacturing technologies.
Robotics and automation are a key enabler in this environment. The HVM Catapult works with organisations to develop not only the next generation of manufacturing robotics and automation technologies, but to also help organisations apply existing technologies to their manufacturing processes. This also includes applying automation to the new manufacturing processes that the HVM Catapult is developing, such as additive manufacturing and the digitalisation of industry.
Wilkins: In your career, how have you seen robotics improving productivity within the manufacturing industry?
Hadall: Since my career started there has been a steady increase in the number of robots being used by the manufacturing industry to increase productivity. There are hundreds of practical examples where the implementation of robotics has improved productivity. This might be a reduction in cycle times or higher consistency of output, but for me those that are memorable are where robots have enabled employees to move into safer and high value added jobs. A good example of this is the use of a robot to move large, heavy and awkward components into position so that they can be fitted, and in doing so, freeing up four employees to carry out other skilled tasks.
The UK is lagging behind in reaping the benefits in productivity that robotics and automation can bring. In the course of my career, I’ve seen countries such as Germany and South Korea really embrace robotics in manufacturing and leap ahead of the UK in terms of productivity. If the UK is going to compete globally then the manufacturing industry needs to use the proven benefits of robotics and automation to improve its productivity.
Wilkins: What technologies and processes in particular are helping improve productivity?
Hadall: The use of collaborative robots to enhance productivity has been put forward as a major technological step change in industrial robotics. In reality, there are many cases where such robots are simply not suitable or safe to use. So for the traditional uses of robots in dull, dangerous or dirty jobs where the aim is to improve the working conditions for employees, the use of ‘cobots’ is unnecessary. But where there is a real need to combine human tacit skill and dexterity to the power and repetitiveness of an industrial robot, ‘cobots’ may have a role. However, these new types of robot are restricted in the speed and payload that they can carry and understanding the safety implications around them has limited their impact so far. With this in mind, my view is that they will be an important part of the technologies we use, but are not the panacea that some believe they are.
We haven’t yet seen major uses of machine learning techniques in manufacturing automation, but this is perhaps only a matter of time. Using methodologies such as reinforcement learning from the artificial intelligence world to allow robotics to learn how to complete a task, will provide us with a major breakthrough in equipping machines with human skills. Similarly, there is a growing need to be able to provide additional dexterity to enable robots to do more.
Wilkins: Have you noticed an improvement in energy efficiency since robotics and automation have begun being used in more applications? If so, why do you think this is?
Hadall: Unfortunately, there hasn’t yet been a major focus on energy efficiency in robotics but this is changing. Each new generation of robot is being designed to be mechanically more efficient and to use relevant technologies to lower power consumption but generate the same level of force, torque or speed. This includes ‘power save’ modes within the controllers to shut non-essential services down during periods of inactivity. Even within the manufacture of the robots themselves there has been a move to use environmentally sustainable materials.
As always there is much more that can be done. The use of energy recovery systems has been of interest to us for some time, but has yet to become a commercially viable technology.
Wilkins: Are there any safety concerns that come with increased use of automation? How can companies overcome them?
Hadall: If treated properly there shouldn’t be any concerns with an increased use of automation as all systems need to comply with stringent standards and regulations. What will be key in the future is ensuring that current standards keep pace with technology innovation so that we can implement some of the more collaborative applications. The danger is that as the technology enables us to do more and in closer proximity to robots, the standards are revised to enable this to happen whilst keeping people safe. This goes hand in hand with ensuring there are enough skilled engineers and technicians who can implement and maintain robot systems.