JULY/AUGUST 2019 OPINION
A focus on simplified programming could boost the UK's
global standing on the adoption of industrial automation
BY NIGEL SMITH, MANAGING DIRECTOR, TM ROBOTICS
According to the International
Federation of Robotics (IFR),
Europe is the second largest
market for industrial robot sales.
Purchasing 56,000 units in total in 2017,
Europe reached a new peak for robot sales
for the third year in a row. That said, much of
this deployment was attributed to Germany,
so where does this leave us Brits?
Britain is no stranger to Industry 4.0. In
October 2017, the government announced its
first major initiative to improve digitalisation
in manufacturing, the Made Smarter review.
Made Smarter called to boost productivity
by encouraging manufacturers to embrace
industrial digitalisation technologies (IDTs),
which includes robotics, automation and
intelligent control software. The review
suggested that a greater uptake of these
technologies could create 175,000 new
jobs in the next decade, because of a 25%
productivity boost in the sector.
The Made Smarter review was bolstered
in January 2018, when the World Economic
Forum in Davos released its first Readiness
for the Future of Production report. The report
outlined how well-positioned economies are
to benefit from Industry 4.0 technologies.
The UK claimed a space in the top 25.
However, just six months later, the initial
findings of the IFR’s World Robotics Report
2018 suggest that as it currently stands, the
same nations are still leading robot sales.
Germany has remained Europe’s forerunner,
Increasing robot volume in
the UK will rely on introducing
SMEs to automation...”
with a total of 22,000 robot units sold – over
a third of Europe’s total robot purchases.
Increasing the volume of robot
deployment in the UK will rely on tapping
into new markets by introducing small to
medium-sized companies to automation.
To reach this market, industrial robots must
become more accessible, in relation to both
cost and user experience. According to TM
Robotics’ Global Robotics Report from 2018,
simple programming was one of the most
important features for end-users when
choosing a robot. In fact, 79% of respondents
named this as a top five consideration.
Currently, there are over 1,500 different
programming languages in the world. Even
for the most proficient robot engineer,
learning them all would be an impossible
and impractical task. For new adopters of
automation, especially in the SME market,
this can be an incredibly daunting prospect.
Simple programming may be a top
priority, but today’s end users also don’t
want to compromise on robot ability –
particularly for their first robotic investment.
A balance therefore needs to be struck.
Growing demand for easily
programmable robots is also evident in
the rapid increase in sales of collaborative
models – robots that can work without
protective barriers between machine and
employee. Collaborative robots, or cobots,
currently account for around 3% of the
total robotics market, but this figure is
expected to reach 34% by 2025.
These machines have been marketed
as easy to program, but despite this,
they should not be considered as a total
alternative to traditional industrial robots.
While cobots do boast some impressive
responsive features, these machines
generally cannot tackle the dangerous,
repetitive and heavy-duty tasks usually
associated with industrial robots – and
this is something that new automation
users aren’t always aware of.
In fact, 55% of respondents to the
Global Robotics Report do not believe that
cobot technology is advanced enough
to deliver the performance required for
manufacturing, and a further 25% were
unsure of their capabilities.
To encourage investment from small
and medium-sized businesses, robot
manufacturers must ensure their machines
are easy to program and don’t intimidate
potential automation users. What’s
more, unlike the large-scale automotive
manufacturers of Germany, Britain’s robot
customers may require more consultation
and guidance to choose which robot is
right for them – to cobot, or not to cobot.
The IFR predicts that the world will
experience a further robotics boom in 2019,
with an estimated 2.6 million robot units set
to be deployed. Regardless of the initiatives
and investments in place to encourage
UK industry to embrace robotics, efforts
must begin with robotics manufacturers
themselves. Simplified robot programming
is key to achieving success.
Is a lack of programming prowess holding back UK manufacturers' uptake of automation?
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