Universal Robots partner, The Robot People, discuss the benefits of introducing collaborative robots amongst SMEs in Australia. Read more
Widely embraced as a means for increasing productivity and efficiencies
As the demand for local manufacturing and increased productivity continues to surge, some manufacturers are grappling with an ongoing issue: a shortage of skilled labour. Read more
Universal Robots has completed the first “Meet the Cobot Leaders” session in Asia Pacific, an online interactive congress on cobots and their encompassing role in the future of manufacturing throughout Asia Pacific.
Jürgen von Hollen, president of Universal Robots, James McKew, regional director of APAC, Universal Robots, and Dr Che Fai Yeong, director of DF Automation and Robotics, expounded industry insights and answered questions from industry practitioners and attendees online, with visionary and practical insights on post-pandemic manufacturing, and how manufacturers in Asia Pacific can be future-ready.
COVID-19 – the game changer
The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 exacerbated existing challenges and exposed new vulnerabilities for manufacturers around the world.
The serious disruption to supply chains, sudden material shortages, and steep swings in demand left manufacturers grappling with changes. Labour-intensive manufacturing has been hit painfully by the regional governments’ COVID-19 measures of extended lockdowns and social distancing. But such measures present an opportunity for labour-centric manufacturers to rethink their operations, on ways to keep production going while adhering to regulatory measures, without sacrificing cost efficiency, and to future-proof operations for more resilience. The event converged the luminaries and attendees with a lively exchange of ideas and recommendations.
According to the panel, COVID-19 was a catalyst for further implementation of cobots in applications previously low on the cobot automation radar – in particular medical applications such as swab testing, sterilisation and disinfection. One such example was the disinfecting of aircraft seat arm rests where it makes sense to use cobots rather than have humans carry heavy apparatus. It avoids repetitive strain injuries and ultimately even possible infections.
Opportunities and challenges of our time
There was also a common agreement that one of the biggest opportunities for UR market development was with smaller manufacturers. Jurgen mentions that UR recently celebrated their 15year anniversary. The company started when its founders realised the limited automation possibilities for SME’s. Today nearly half their customer base is large companies who were quick to understand and adopt cobot automation but yet the SME’s still feel it is only meant for bigger players.
McKew agreed with this notion highlighting that the biggest challenge they see is small business being scared off by cost and how to yield return on investment. They need to understand the investment and what this ultimately will bring to their organisation.
This is where the UR team focuses a lot of their attention. Understanding the needs and business objectives of these small businesses and helping them identify and implement their cobot opportunity.
COVID has been good at helping customers understand the benefits of cobots by helping them automate dumb, dirty and dangerous jobs and very importantly, helping them to distance and do this without the need for an increased footprint.
ROI and investment considerations
“UR delivers incredible ROI that will satisfy every financial decision maker. Being able to have a conversation about how cobots allow a distinct benefit in labour variability and managing the high cost of poor quality” says McKew.
Even countries who are highly price sensitive with a volatile exchange rate such as India and Indonesia have shown that cobot implementation makes financial sense.
Price isn’t the barrier according to the UR as customers in lower performing economies and the more than 46 000 cobots installed worldwide have proven. Understanding the full value of the flexibility offered by cobot automation is the key to higher uptake.
Jurgen mentions that cobots are the disrupters of the automation world. It offers customers the flexibility which is the key to business continuity – now more than ever before. It enables a customer to deploy and redeploy a cobot over and over again for every application with minimal disruption. The customisation provided by the UR+ partners are a critical component to business continuity. “A customer should be able to continue producing, as they did today, tomorrow and the next day, regardless of circumstance.
“The key success factor for any company right now is flexibility. As CEO we are going through same pain to forecast what is happening in 3 or 6 months. To be flexible and dynamically adjust your infrastructure to meet customer needs is fundamentally important. COVID has made us realise that business continuity is a huge requirement and that we have to always look at it critically and question it” says Jurgen.
Are robots replacing humans?
On robots replacing humans, the answer is clear. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many layoffs. With people now more worried about job security than ever, companies may face hesitancy at the adoption of further automation. Jurgen pointed out that statistically countries with higher levels of automation and cobot implementation had the lowest rate of unemployment according to pre-COVID studies.
Cobots are not there to replace humans and according to him the UR perspective is that the most effective and efficient system is one that combines human and robot.
James points out that cobots help manufacturers to reopen by taking care of the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks while managing distancing on the factory floor. Without these measures business will remain closed and will face even further financial losses – resulting in further job cuts or ultimate closure.
“With cobots you are ensuring business continuity and you have the capability to work despite a virus or social distancing. As the world becomes more chaotic and unpredictable, humans will become even more irreplaceable,” said Jurgen.
In conclusion Jurgen comments that running a business is about managing risk. “The worst decision is no decision” he says in closing.
Dr Yeong, a name well-associated with robotics and inventions in Malaysia, and a winner of more than 100 awards nationally and internationally, moderated the session. Dr Yeong said after the successful completion of the conference, the cost of non-deployment is ultimately the highest price to pay.
Automation is changing at a rapid pace. New robotic capabilities continue to blur the lines between collaborative and industrial robots, but it is certainly an exciting time to integrate robotics into your automation processes.
Since bursting onto the scene over a decade ago, cobots have made automation affordable and accessible to organisations both big and small. Cobots are easy to program and can be handled by someone with limited technical expertise.
They work safely alongside humans or on their own and offer space savings thanks to their compact nature. Cobots are also easily accessible in terms of affordability and implementation.
When to Use a Cobot vs. an Industrial Robot
Darrell Adams, head of Southeast Asia Oceania for Universal Robots said that various factors should be considered before selecting either a cobot or an industrial robot. “This depends entirely on each organisation’s unique requirements and situation.”
In looking at the difference between these automation options, the following factors should influence the purchasing decision:
- Easy to deploy and redeploy
- Easy to program and set up in-house
- Requires minimal changes to the existing production floor
- Can work safely with humans
- Low initial cost
- Shorter payback period
- Integration with other machines and robots
- Payloads of up to 16kg
- Can run processes with few or no employees
- Automation of processes or products that won’t change over time
- High-volume, high-speed applications exceeding over 1m/s
- A required payload of more than 16kg
- A reach of more than 1300mm is required
- Integration with other machines and robots
- Can run processes with few to no employees
- Automation of processes or products that won’t change over time
Dispelling Common Cobot Myths
As a relatively new form of automation, Adams adds that there are still a few misconceptions surrounding cobots.
- Cobots are not industrial robots
“Cobots were initially designed to be lightweight and easy to use, but today’s cobots are powerful industrial tools that can be integrated with existing machinery and other robots through PLCs and sophisticated programming software.”
- Cobots are the only collaborative robots
Adams notes that almost any robot can claim to be collaborative with the appropriate safety mechanisms in place (per the ISO/TS 15066 standard). “The difference is that cobots are in fact the only robots that were designed specifically to work alongside humans. They are defined by their ability to offer versatility, user-friendliness, small footprint, and affordability.”
- Cobots are always safe to use next to human workers
“Every automated application where humans are present requires a risk assessment—and that includes cobots” said Adams. “Based on the assessment, a collaborative application may still require safety mechanisms such as light curtains, safety mats, or reduced robot speed. However, cobots are designed to be used within a collaborative workspace and have built-in safety mechanisms to support this use, and a vast majority of our cobots are used without safety cages.”
- Cobots are getting people fired
Adams immediately and firmly replies, “no”. Cobots were designed to focus on monotonous, repetitive or injury-prone tasks to free up time for workers to add value to the business in processes which require more thought. “Often, the arrival of cobots significantly boosts manufacturers’ global competitiveness, enabling them to outbid competitors in low-wage countries, reshore work, and hire more people locally.”
- Cobots are slow
With extra safety devices installed, a cobot can work faster than a human and then either stop or reduce speed once a person enters the work envelope. “Even in applications that handle tasks at the same speed as an employee would, cobots do so consistently without stopping or slowing down over time, which typically increases productivity and quality,” Adams explains.
- Cobots are not ideal for precision handling
Adams says that this simply not true. “Cobots are suitable for very precise finishing, assembly, and electronics tasks. Universal Robots’ e-Series cobots now feature a repeatability of 30 micron (0.03mm) in the UR3e and UR5e models and 50 micron (0.05mm) in the UR10e and UR16e.” With built-in, tool-centric force/torque sensor the e-Series can handle applications where force-feedback is paramount to obtain uniform results and repeatability.
Adams said that the journey to automating with cobots is an exciting one. “While there was some resistance in the past, many organisations are now reaping the rewards and cobots are being welcomed by workers,” he said.
Some organisations have gone as far as to name their cobots, and feedback from workers have been that it is as easy to work as a mobile phone.
Whether they are disinfecting and sanitising, conducting COVID-19 tests, helping to manufacture Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) or ramping up respirator production, cobots can work alongside humans safely or on their own. They are the answer to accelerating repetitive tasks in the manufacturing environment while simultaneously addressing concerns around social distancing and the safety of employees.
Industry pioneers, Universal Robots have noted an uptake in the demand for its cobots in various industries across the globe. “Locally”, observes Darrell Adams, Head of Southeast Asia Oceania for Universal Robots, “the pandemic has seen many companies shifting towards robotic technology to help ramp up production.”
“As the fastest growing sector in the robotics industry, cobots are easy to program and deploy remotely. 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 percent of global robot spend” he explains.
Disinfecting with cobots
The pandemic has seen massive increase in demand for effective deep cleaning and disinfection technologies that do not involve direct human contact with potentially infected areas.
In mid-April, researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore unveiled the eXtremeDisinfection roBOT (XDBOT), which comprises a UR5 cobot fitted with an electrostatic spray nozzle all mounted on a mobile platform.
Researchers programmed the cobot to mimic human hand movements so that it can get into hard-to-reach areas such as under beds and tables – a feature that has been missing from traditional disinfection robots that are not as dexterous.
“These cobots are capable of running for four hours straight on a single charge and has been successfully tested in public areas on the NTU campus. The team is now preparing to trial this technology at local public hospitals”.
Adams notes that the UR5 cobot with its built-in safety features can work safely and collaboratively with humans too.
COVID-19 testing with cobots
COVID-19 has also resulted in unprecedented demand for medical testing. In response to this extraordinary demand, Universal Robots co-founder, Esben Østergaard turned his creative energies to the design and development of the world’s first autonomous throat swabbing robot launched by Lifeline Robotics, a company he co-founded with the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU).
This robot uses UR3 cobot arms fitted with a custom 3D-printed end-effector. The process is simplicity itself, beginning with the patient scanning their ID card. Right away, the robot prepares a sample kit, consisting of a container with a printed ID-label and it picks up the swab. Then, using its built-in vision system, the robot identifies the right points to swab in the patient’s throat. As soon as the swab process is complete, the bot places the sample in a jar and screws on the lid. The jar is then sent to a lab for analysis.
“The process takes around seven minutes and the swab takes just 25 seconds,” said Adams.
Meanwhile in Houston, Texas-based portable detection manufacturer, DetectaChem unveiled a unique smartphone-based COVID-19 testing solution in late May. The company’s at-home, low cost COVID-19 test provides results via smart phone in just 15-30 minutes.
Ventilator manufacturing with cobots
Cobots inherent flexibility helps to support the rapid development and deployment of automation, a feature that really comes to the fore in times of crisis. In March, for example, the Spanish car manufacturer SEAT decided to transform one of its assembly lines from its original automotive role to ventilator production. The auto giant installed a UR10e at the end of the line to perform a quality check of the locking mechanism on the unit’s control box.
PPE production with cobots
Based in Ontario, Canada, Hannafin Automation looked to a UR5 cobot to tend the entire 3D printing cycle of face shields. The cobot picked up a Cognex vision camera to inspect the completion of each print. When print is done, the cobot picks it up, places it in a bin, and presses the printer’s touch screen to start a new cycle.
Each printer makes 25 face shields per day and these are donated to local police fire stations, paramedics, and nursing homes.
How cobots can assist locally
Adams notes that as the local economy starts to ramp up again, there is an ongoing call by government for more local manufacturing to take place. “More and more, the country is looking to local, sustainable and cost-effective manufacturing practices to help reaccelerate the sector.”
“Sometimes overlooked, cobots seek to add value in the business and allows employees to focus on strategic tasks rather than repetitive and mundane tasks. We have seen many companies putting flexi hours into place, here, cobots can assist during the downtime and can work continuously to ensure ongoing productivity.”
Manufacturing and automation is now more top-of-mind than ever before. As Industry 4.0 takes root in businesses across the globe, the opportunity to embrace highly-advanced technology and new, forward-thinking ways of working has never been greater. From smart cities and cashless payments to autonomous vehicles, there is no shortage of buzzworthy, headline-grabbing advances in modern industry.
One innovation that has become particularly important is intelligent manufacturing or smart factories. A combination of cyber-physical systems, automation, and the Internet of Things (IoT), these facilities have the potential to rapidly transform business. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Australia has identified and embraced the benefits that this industrial wave holds. Automation adoption among Australian manufacturers has picked up substantially in recent years. According to the Australian Manufacturing Forum, there are around 83 robots per 10,000 employees in the country. This trumps the global average of 74 robots per 10,000 employees.
Global consulting company, Mckinsey, has also identified the economic potential that the rapid introduction of robots could hold for the country. In its 2019 Australia’s Automation Opportunity: Reigniting opportunity and inclusive income growth report, the agency noted that this opportunity could add $1.1 trillion to $4 trillion to the economy over the next 15 years, providing every Australian with $4,000 to $15,000 in additional income per year by 2030.
“As the country faces a modest 2 per cent GDP growth this year, and some economists speculate that the country could even face a recession in the wake of the recent bushfires and the coronavirus (COVID-19), is it perhaps time that Australian manufacturers grab hold of this automation potential and reshape the industry?” asks James McKew, regional director at Universal Robots.
Curbing Economic Concerns
As close economic allies, China’s halt on production has had significant impact on the local supply chain. Here, McKew notes that advancements in AI and specifically, cobotics, can be used in areas where it’s unsafe for humans to work or more simply Australian workers are unwilling to do the monotonous tasks to which cobots are so well suited.
“One of the latest and most exciting robotic breakthroughs, collaborative robots or cobots – robots that work alongside human operators safely - enable businesses to improve cost efficiency, productivity, and output quality. These intelligent tools foster a more inclusive workspace, too, by relieving workers from strenuous, repetitive and sometimes dangerous tasks so they can focus on higher-value assignments,” McKew said.
Cobots are user-friendly, flexible, compact, safe, and have a lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) compared to traditional industrial robots. TCO includes both direct and indirect costs, including maintenance, factory floor upgrades (including the ease a cobot can be re-deployed), employee training, and safety barriers, all of which are factors that typically apply to traditional industrial robots. Cobots are also less costly to set up, which further makes them a financially attractive option for manufacturers turning to automation for the first time.
What can we learn from the COVID-19?
Besides finding a vaccine or a cure, automation has now also been lauded as one of the safest ways to bridge the gap between the virus and service delivery.
In light of the global COVID-19 outbreak, the opportunity exists to further understand and implement automation across the country, placing Australia in a stronger manufacturing position and improving its global competitiveness rank.
“The World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Index revealed that those economies that have invested in innovation capabilities are best placed to revive productivity and weather a global slowdown,” said McKew.
While Australian manufacturers are lagging slightly behind global and regional peers in Industry 4.0 adoption – compared to Korea’s 631 robots per 10,000 employees – the country is renowned for its high number of SME and micro-businesses in local manufacturing. “Many of these producers are hampered by costs, which could reduce as the uptake of automation on the factory floor increases. To better compete as a major player in global supply chains, they should embrace the digital transformation with haste,” said McKew.
McKinsey supports this notion, estimating that between 25 per cent and 46per cent of current work activities in Australia could be automated by 2030, helping to drive a renaissance in productivity, income and economic growth.
Utilising robotics and Industry 4.0 technologies, the pivot to intelligent manufacturing may just be the solution that helps countries in beating coronavirus now and future viruses that might arise.
Australia has some of the highest labour rates in the world, so naturally, optimising processes and using skilled labour where they are most valuable makes sense. While some are still of the opinion that automation is costing jobs, automation is in fact creating jobs and enhancing productivity.
As production increases, it requires more people to manage the up and downstream of the process increase and allows businesses to make more profits. This gives businesses more time to train and upskill their team members in areas more useful to the company.
Adding to the complexities of manufacturing is the need for stringent health and safety requirements which remains a key focus for food and beverage manufacturers of all sizes, as well as those processors in similar industries.
Universal Robots recently helped a global healthcare brand, Sanofi to free up time where it was needed most.
Seven UR10 collaborative robots (cobots) were deployed at Sanofi’s Tours site in France. The integration into packaging lines was used to meet new productivity requirements, that optimised the organisation and reduced load carrying and operator movements in palletizing boxes with tablets and capsules. Thanks to the installation of the UR cobots, Sanofi has increased its production and improved health and safety related to the reduction of MSDs (musculoskeletal disorders) of its operators. These employees are now able to focus on higher value-added tasks.
Darrell Adams, head of South-east Asia Oceania for Universal Robots, believed that the same level of success can be experienced in our local markets, including food and beverage manufacturing and processing.
“Sanofi wanted to reduce the load carried by the operators working on the line. While one cardboard box wasn’t very heavy, lifting a total of around 300 to 700 kg per person per day quickly added up!”
Compact, safe and flexible
Used for palletising, these seven UR10 cobots offer a payload of 10kg and a reach of 1300mm. According to Sanofi Tour’s new works manager, Giles Marsal, these compact cobots were ideal for this application where an arm needed to be installed between two pallets.
“The team were pleased with the ease of programming and the cobots’ flexibility, making it possible to add various sized grippers in just a few seconds,” said Adams.
“The cobots continue working hard, loading and unloading pallets at the end of the line with no strain at all. The application also offers the possibility to change pallets next to the palletising robot safely”.
Sanofi also noted that the integration of these cobots has brought ergonomic benefits in terms of load carrying, travel and a notable reduction in the work time one the line for its operators.
Marsal was quoted saying that thanks to ‘cobot discovery days’, Sanofi employees have now bought in and the cobots are well received. They now look to these cobots as a good collaborator rather than a threat. They are easy and safe to work with and have helped avoid long-term health risks for Sanofi’s employees.
With an estimated 12.35 million acres of land and 2,500 homes and business having been destroyed in the recent runaway fires that ravaged the landscape since September 2019, Australia is now faced with the enormous and arduous task of rebuilding the country.
While this might seem like an insurmountable task to many, the fires also bring new opportunities to the adjacent industries involved in helping rebuild the homes, buildings and farmland that were lost in the fire, giving an opportunity to jumpstart the economy. This is particularly true in the agriculture industry, which comprised 14 per cent of the total land that was burned by the Australian bushfires. By mid-January, an estimated 820,000 ha of agricultural land had been destroyed across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
Rising up from the ashes
Cobot manufacturer Universal Robots, believes that while this tragic event has left a trail of destruction and Australia still needs to recover from the loss to its ecosystem, companies may be able to speed up the process of rebuilding by implementing technological advancements across the spectrum.
With applications ranging from packaging and palletising, assembly, welding, product handling and many more, UR cobots can tackle those tedious tasks that require superhuman abilities to repeat the same movement over and over again for many hours with exactly the same precision. Cobots have been successfully deployed across a range of industries and have become more common in manufacturing environments.
“A big benefit UR cobots hold in this rebuilding process is that it provides manufacturers and industry with the ability to act fast, increase productivity, profits and offer higher quality products,” said Darrell Adams, Head of SEAO at Universal Robots.
Cobots can be programmed, operated and maintained by existing employees, regardless of the team’s previous robotics or automation experience. In fact, the out-of-box experience for an untrained operator to unpack a UR robot, mount it, and program the first simple task is typically less than an hour according to Adams.
Food production accelerated
As far as the agriculture industry is concerned, the company believes that farmers in Australia need all the help they can get. With automated agriculture going from strength to strength, cobots can offer an effective solution. According to a recent report, the market for agricultural robots is expected to reach $35 billion within the next five years. “Cobots can prove their agricultural worth by assisting producers in getting their businesses back up and running faster and more efficiently,” says Adams.
He notes that UR cobots can be applied to a number of requirements within the agriculture and food processing sector. Robots are successfully used in planting, seeding, fertilising, irrigation, weeding, thinning, pruning, harvesting and milking applications among others.
The company prides itself in the cobot’s ability to handle delicate agricultural processes and products. Such an example can be found in the dairy industry, where a UR robot arm mounted to a small pallet jack is used to disinfect and milk cows, cutting labour costs and time taken to complete the job. The robot takes up no more space than a human milker and doesn’t require any safety caging.
Another application where cobots can be implemented is in the packaging of goods that are sent to market. Adams notes one case study of a UR10 robot, installed at a food manufacturer. The robot worked independently to pack vanilla cream bags into cartons, but also formed part of a network that includes a carton erector, a carton sealer, and a filling machine. “This is one of the real benefits of cobots – it can work alongside workers and form part of your factory process.”
Collaborative robots are also ideal for hygienic food processing environments, where it can operate around the clock during seasonal periods of high production and can be easily redeployed to new applications as needed, helping local farmers reach their production goals faster.
A local success story
Developed by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in proud partnership with Universal Robots, Harvey, a robotic harvester combines state-of-the-art robotic vision and manipulation techniques to identify and harvest capsicums.
Harvesting labour in Australia ranges from 20 – 40 per cent of operational farming costs and this combined with a shortage of skilled labour can result in some of the crops not being harvested.
In recent trails, Harvey used images from a camera-in-hand system to locate the fruit. A motion planning algorithm was then used to command a novel multi-mode harvesting tool to safely detach the fruit. Results show a fruit harvesting success rate of 76.5% – a significant improvement when compared to the state-of-the-art, which achieved 33% in a similar scenario. Harvey also achieved an average pick time of 20 seconds for this field trial compared to 106 seconds by its predecessor.
This year, QUT will further develop Harvey as part of its involvement in the new Future of Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre backed by $35M in Australian Government funding over 10 years, and $149.6M in cash and in-kind funds from more than 50 participants.
Making cobots accessible to everyone
According to Adams, UR has just released a financial services leasing programme which could prove to be a lifeline for producers who are rebuilding their business. “We are levelling the playing field by enabling all manufacturers to immediately put cobots to work without an upfront capital investment. UR Financial Services offers a fast, low-risk and financially-friendly model to accelerate automation. The partnership makes it easy to upgrade existing cobots, add additional units or test cobots for the first time – and equips users to maximise productivity, quality and profitability, without increasing costs or cash outlay” says Adams.
“It’s time to think more laterally about agriculture. Robotics is the revolutionary new technology which can change the way we think about producing food,” he concluded.
It can be hard to make a dollar in the retail world. Overheads can be high, margins small, good staff not easy to find, and with the online presence of Amazon, Alibaba and a myriad of other smaller players, competition is fierce.
But people will always need food. And while a recent report from Brick Meets Click has found that online grocery shopping makes up 5.5 per cent of total spend in the category in the US (closely mirrored here in Australia) and is growing, people still like to eat out. And there is still compulsion buying at your favourite fast food outlet, or ice cream store.
Again, competition is fierce so as well as varying the products that are on offer, but also vary the shopping experience, too. This is something digital and robotics solutions company Niska thought when it mooted the idea of opening an ice-cream store in Melbourne’s CBD. Its solutions are aimed at the retail industry, which is why it decided on a novel approach – robots serving customers. The idea of robots serving people has been the purview of science fiction since the genre was invented, however now it is coming to fruition. Although the concept is all Niska’s, the company needed help to bring its idea alive. Enter ABB, who among other things, specialises in robotics.
John Rieusset leads ABB’s business activities in the food and beverage industry. He is also the marketing manager for ABB’s Robotics and Motion businesses. The YuMi robot is known as Tony and adds the toppings to the ice cream, and serves them to customers. A key aspect of Niska’s operation is ABB’s YuMi robot – or cobot as they prefer to call it – which is a popular model that is being used in factories throughout the world.
While the aesthetic side of what the robot looks like in store are a novelty – and Niska are first to admit that is part of the reason for opening the outlet – Rieusset said that the practical aspects of YuMi were the main selling point.
“In terms of deploying YuMi, one of the key aspects as to why Niska was interested was the fact it could be redeployed to do different tasks and it’s very easy to program,” he said. “The robot has what is called a lead-through programming functionality whereby you don’t need a traditional robotics programmer. You basically lead the robot through the motions; you take its arms and you manoeuvre it to do the tasks you want. It records those motions and then it effectively plays it back. It is something that even a child could grasp.”
When new technologies start emerging – even ones that have been mooted for decades – there is usually a backlash from those most affected. In the case of cobots, it is those who work in some aspects of the retail environment. However, Rieusset believes that any thoughts of the demise of the retail worker are premature.
“For this particular concept it is effectively a novelty. In terms of a commercial concept, it’s not something that is necessarily something that is going to work in every retail environment,” he said. “Where we would see robots being introduced in a retail environment would be more in the back room activities. For example, some of the large fast food chains. They are very systematic in their processes. If you go behind of the big burger chains they have everything set up in modules and it like a production line and that’s where we would see robots becoming more involved in that food services industry. It is likely that robots will be introduced at the point of sale, but it’s not going to replace every point of sale job in every aspect of the food industry. That is unlikely.”
A key ingredient as to why some companies – especially in the supply chain – have adopted robotics is the cost savings on labour. What is the return on investment for putting something like a YuMi robot to work?
“The ROI for a YuMi robot can be as little as six months for some picking and packing applications,” he said. “It is a no brainer to introduce a robot, for example, in the picking and packing of sweets. We have a YuMi robot installed at a company in Finland. It is integrated into the production line and it is involved in the picking and packing process.”
Which begs the question; is there a perception that robotics as a solution are seen as expensive?
“I would say that was true,” said Rieusset. “It’s really a case of educating end users that robots can be introduced into their processes. It’s a case of increasing the maturity and understanding generally out in industry as to where that can occur. It’s not only about increasing throughput on production lines – some of the processes are highly repetitive, which creates issues of OH&S risk in businesses. Being able to introduce those robots into the environment is also about de-risking the business in other areas.”
Rieusset also points out that ABB and its ABB Authorised Value Providers have a nationwide network of service engineers that are available if the robots need servicing. He also said that even though robots do have a function in the Niska store, humans do still have a role to play.
“The three robots at the store are involved in the ordering and serving process of the ice cream,” he said. “Niska also has a human staff member within the store that guide people through the ordering process. It’s not as if you walk in and are greeted by robots and you’re left alone to place your order. There is a human element. The robots were introduced to that ice cream store concept just as much as a novelty as anything else.”
YuMi collaborative robots can be deployed into a lot of industries besides the food and beverage sector, including electronics, medical and pharmaceutical.
The Australian food and beverage market is one of the country’s major industries, with an annual revenue of $2.1 billion. It is populated by a variety of iconic and enduring brands. In such a crowded market, it can be difficult for smaller businesses to stand out. But with the right tools and processes in place, even the smallest businesses can compete on a level-playing field with larger operators.
Packaging is one of the crucial ways that businesses can build their brand and differentiate themselves from their competition. With strong links between visual presentation and positive memories, it’s an essential piece of a brand’s identity. Iconic Australian brands like Vegemite, Arnott’s and Cadbury can be instantly recognised by their packaging, and it has a direct impact on the perception of their brand.
But packaging is more than just a “pretty face” – it has an important role in protecting the health and safety of customers. This was made clear in last year’s strawberry tampering scandal, when Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s (FSANZ) report into needle contamination suggested that more effective, tamper-proof packaging could be one way to prevent future incidents. Similarly, with the debate over single-use plastics and resource wastage growing stronger by the day, packaging can also signify a company’s commitment to sustainability.
In the wake of food issues like strawberry tampering and combined with increasing competition and a focus on sustainability, having streamlined, consistent and high-quality packaging processes during manufacturing is now more important than ever. A high standard of packaging not only attracts new customers to a brand, it can also save costs, protect customer safety, and maximise business resources.
The importance of safe packaging
The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code lays out a series of standards that food businesses must maintain, including an active commitment to reducing the risk of food contamination and protecting the health of consumers. The code outlines that packaging must be durable, of a high quality, not leach chemicals or allow harmful microorganisms to become mixed with the food, among other requirements. Contamination remains a core risk of packaging processes and can be caused by poor manufacturing conditions or inconsistent cleaning and sanitising processes.
When managing food processes, consistency is key. Quality packaging is costly to manufacture, so it’s equally important to use it efficiently and effectively. This requires constant monitoring, skilled workers, and equipment that’s up to the task. But maintaining high quality standards doesn’t just mean being “compliant” to current legislation – it requires an active commitment to constantly improving manufacturing processes.
One simple fact of food manufacturing is that the presence of human workers on the production line carries the risk of contamination, from various bodily fluids to the growth of harmful bacteria in manufacturing environments. In the first two months of 2019, there have been nine food recall reports from FSANZ, including a variety of dairy product recalls due to the presence of E. coli bacteria, as well as a beer nut recall due to the presence of glass fragments. These incidents, which have potential to cause illness or harm, were likely the result of inefficient manufacturing processes or human error.
When taking on dull and repetitive tasks in the workplace, fatigue can lead to mistakes. In the food and beverages industry, these mistakes can be harmful, but actively improving production processes and introducing new technologies can prevent them.
Investing in technology and automation is one obvious solution: not only to reduce risk, but also to improve productivity. Since being installed in manufacturing plants in the 1970s, robots have evolved to take on increasingly complex tasks. Now, the latest robotic technology can take on smaller scale and more intricate work, and handle more delicate products, such as eggs and fruit.
Collaborating for better packaging processes
In particular, collaborative robots (cobots) are a growing technology that the food and beverage industry has an opportunity to adopt to reduce the risk of contamination and maintain high levels of product consistency. With their small size, flexible and adaptive setup, and ability to work in close-proximity with people, cobots can be used across food and beverage production facilities, from picking and placing to packing or palletising.
This process often takes place in a “clean room”, where products can be manufactured in a controlled environment to reduce the risk of pathogen transference. Cobots working to produce items such as dairy and juice can create longer-lasting products, as well as ensure consistent output.
By integrating cobots into the production line, a company can reduce the risk of cross-contamination across a plant. Additionally, automating repetitive tasks not only increases consistency and productivity but it also frees up employees to take up more interesting and engaging tasks. Reallocating these tasks creates new opportunities for workers to learn valuable, transferable skills such as programming, keeping them more engaged and alert while working on the production line.
The food and beverage industry has a long history of adapting to changing taste, trends, and technology. Introducing automation technology like cobots to the workplace has the potential to improve overall safety, reduce waste, and improve productivity. It is important the industry does not wait for another safety scandal to act: it’s time to get on the front foot and ensure the sector’s efficiency, growth and success for years to come.
Collaborative robots (cobots) specialist, Universal Robots, has announced the appointment of industry veteran Peter Hern in the role of ANZ country manager. The appointment brings his experience in the technology, automation and robotics industries to the company, as well as his local knowledge of ANZ manufacturing.
Hern will be responsible for customer support, lead generation, sales and marketing activities, as well as assisting with the commercial development of channel partners across the region. Additionally, he will manage business planning and commercial results for the region.
“The cobot industry in Australia and New Zealand is growing rapidly, representing significant opportunity for all manufacturers in the region,” said Hern. “Universal Robots has the potential to completely transform businesses across Oceania with their range of collaborative robots. We’ve already seen strong demand in the region for our latest range of e-Series cobots, since their release in June last year, and we’re expecting continued growth through 2019.
“Cobots give small to medium sized businesses (SMBs) the ability to improve productivity, efficiency and consistency, giving them a leading edge in robotics. I’m proud to join the Universal Robots team as Country Manager and bring my knowledge of the robotics industry and in-market experience to the role,” Hern continued.
Prior to joining Universal Robots, Hern worked widely in the automation and technology industries, including working with ABB Group in Dubai and Singapore as regional market development manager, as well as working with Baldor Australia, Baldor Electric, as market development manager, and Rockwell Automation across China, Indonesia and Australia.
“Peter’s wealth of experience and expertise in the automation industry is exceptional,” said Sakari Kuikka, general manager, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Universal Robots. “As we look to grow our presence in Australia and New Zealand, his guidance will be essential. We’re very happy to welcome him aboard our team at Universal Robots and look forward to working with him to shape our vision for the region.”
“Australia is one of our top-performing markets in the APAC region, as SMBs across the country seek to improve their productivity and competitiveness. With clients ranging from contract manufacturers to educational institutions, food and beverage producers to packaging businesses, Peter’s experience across a range of industries will be essential in meeting our ambitious growth targets,” Kuikka continued.
Universal Robots produces collaborative robots, known colloquially as ‘cobots’, that are designed to provide businesses with transformative manufacturing solutions. Available in a variety of sizes, they enable small businesses to integrate a variety of robotics tasks into the manufacturing process and work alongside humans to elevate the quality and speed of product creation.