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The manufacturing sector has historically survived disruption caused by recessions, supply shortages, and geopolitical turmoil by embracing innovation. Ian Ackerman writes. This article was first published in Food & Drink Business July/August 2020.

​A common setback for manufacturers is when suppliers cannot meet new automation needs quickly.

Traditional automation can be expensive and rigid, taking months, even years, while minor modifications can result in weeks of costly downtime.

Universal Robots (UR) vice-president of operations and supply chain Martin Kjærbo says the company has adapted rapidly by keeping its finger on the pulse.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has caused a major shakeup, no doubt about it,” he says.

“This is a time when the robustness of our supply chain is seriously challenged. Fortunately, we already had a dual-source supply chain in place, which meant that when China started shutting down, we weren’t as vulnerable and had options to get the same parts elsewhere.

Kjærbo says one of the most significant lessons of this time is learning the importance of dual-sourcing supply chains and staying in close contact with every supplier.

Robotics accelerate amid Covid-19

Viewed as a niche product in the past, cobots are now the fastest-growing segment in the industrial robotics sector. By 2025, cobots are expected to jump from niche status to thoroughly mainstream, accounting for approximately 34 per cent of global robot spend.

Locally the changes are already taking place. Darrell Adams, head of Southeast Asia Oceania for Universal Robots says he expects to see an uptick in demand for cobots over the next few years.

“Easy to program and operate remotely, these affordable, flexible robots are designed to work in safe collaboration with humans and could be the answer to the social distancing measures that companies need to adhere to,” he says.

Adams says flexibility is an important driver in the global adoption of cobots. In times of uncertainty, they pave the way to business continuity, innovation, and the futureproofing of key processes.

“The reduced recruitment costs, consistent quality, enhanced productivity, affordability and flexibility of cobots in the automation space is particularly exciting right now,” he says.

“We have invested significantly in R&D over the years and developed cobots to provide assistance across almost every industry.

“Rather than stopping production in future and under extraordinary circumstances, customers can plan ahead and analyse their key processes to ensure ongoing productivity.”

Answering urgent calls 

from the market, the company has launched application-focused hardware and software tools designed to further streamline the deployment process – from anywhere.

“These UR+ Application Kits cover an array of applications such as material handling and allow the customer to simplify their deployment process – from ordering and isolation picking applications to palletising and de-palletising,” Adams says.

Cobots are particularly suited to machine tending and dangerous and dull jobs such as CNC machine tending, and welding are only two of the areas where cobots are often deployed.

Cobots’ crisis delivery

In a recent success story, RCM Industries, a manufacturer of die casting parts with four production plants, deployed UR cobots in two identical cells where they each tend to two dual-spindle CNC lathes in the same cycle.

The company’s director of sales and marketing Mike Higgins says the Chicago-based company planned for a “worst case scenario” to help weather the COVID-19 storm.

“Our four plants have been substantially impacted by the pandemic—our operations are down fifty to eighty per cent right now,” he said.

“Fortunately, several of the customers that we manufacture parts for are deemed ‘essential’ because they produce parts for the medical, military, and automotive industries.”

Higgins says deploying the cobots proved effective in terms of following social distancing guidelines, as only one roving inspector was needed to oversee the operation of the cells.

“In times like these, our automated cells have really been beneficial,” he says.

“The crew that we kept on staff had a broader skill set and were not familiar with the direct operation of the collaborative robots, but since the day-to-day operation of the cobots is fairly easy to learn, handle and monitor, this has not been an issue.”

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