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Sunday, 16 October 2016 13:25

Robots to rule – but in a good way


ANALYSIS Will robots take over our jobs? Well yes and no, and surprisingly one robot maker is not advocating that outcome at all.

I was part of a media/analyst briefing by Danish manufacturer, Universal Robots (UR) — a great name conjuring up all sorts of images only to find that robots are all about three-or-more-axis (directions of travel) and most look like small cantilever arms. No science fiction human forms — sorry, Androids — here.

Robot is an interesting name – its commercial use means a mechanical device that is capable of performing a variety of often complex, boring, dangerous, or repetitive “human” tasks by being programmed to do so.

That definition is not too far from its first use by Karel Čapek in his 1921 play R.U.R. – an abbreviation of Rossum's Universal Robots, the name of the corporation in the play that makes robots serve as slave labour for humanity. The Czech word robota means "servitude, forced labour".

But the term robot has many emotive connotations as we grew up with Will Robinson’s aptly titled “Robot” to droids like C-3P0, R2-D2 and lately BB-8. These are autonomous robots – droids using neural network brains and AI to function. That is why I suspect the term robot needs to be redefined to perhaps “industrial automation” for the mindless machine variety.

UR prefers the term “Cobots” – collaborative robots. While the briefing did not contain any hard news, we covered many social and economic issues.

There are about 1.5 million robots now and that will increase to nearly three million by 2019. About 229,000 were sold in 2014, but only 700 made it to Australia.

Strong, continued robot growth is forecast by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), with its recent report suggesting a rise of 18% this year, while installations are expected to rise by 15%. China is predicted to remain the main driver, expanding its dominance with almost 40% of the global robot supply being installed there by 2019.

Panel discussions

Matthew Murphy is the next in a line of “Murphys” to be involved in the family injection molding business Prysm Industries at Dandenong. Murphy has no background in engineering or molding – he has a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom), Sports Management and a Bachelor of Applied Science (BASc), Sports and Exercise from Deakin University. He has been production manager for five years.

So he has a different slant on things – a delightful naivety in some ways. He sees robots fulfilling two main needs. First, in relieving staff of boring, dangerous and soul-destroying jobs and second, in giving this small contract manufacturer a shot at surviving the relentless march of cheap imports and their effect on prices.

He spoke of his journey to install robots. “Many of our products require an adhesive label. Previously, skilled operators would stand in one spot for hours on end and apply labels to products every 6-7 seconds. We decided to automate this repetitive task to reduce costs and to free up our staff for more varied and engaging activities. And you know what, our staff are relieved not to have to do that work.”

Murphy had used a few older 3-axis welding robots and decided to search for a more sophisticated automation solution. A Universal Robots, six-axis UR5 from Sensorplex (a Victorian distributor), was selected.

UR 5“Our UR5 is typically positioned in a small corner at the end of a production line. It has no problem moving around and folding over on itself in a very tight space. We have other robots on our production line, and they only stay in one spot since it’s too difficult to move them and not worth our time. Our staff easily reposition the UR5 every 2-3 weeks to accommodate various production requirements,” Murphy said.

“When we do not require it for labelling, we use the UR5 to move and stack products. It’s extremely easy to re-program. The interface has a simple layout and uses non-technical language that everyone can understand. Plus, the robot can be reprogrammed either by moving its arm to show it how a movement should be performed or by using arrows on the touchscreen. Even for our employees with no previous experience with robots, it has been quite easy to pick up.".

The discussion turned to cost. While the UR is not expensive per se, it did require Prysm to lease it and “pray that it did the job” although as Murphy said he was pretty sure it could. He could also access government R&D tax offsets. So it is all about small to medium business laying out the money and taking the risk, hoping it will work. Perhaps there is a role for the Australian government here to reduce that risk.

That is a very different ethos to how some Asian countries encourage disruption via process automation. For example, Singapore subsidises up to 70% of the cost, and some other countries provide resources to see how they can be used to increase productivity and reduce costs.

We spoke about the potential for job loss. Yes, it can happen, and that has been seen in many Asian factories where the “unskilled or semi-skilled” workers have been eliminated. But Murphy says his staff are relieved not to have to do the work, and it is allowing him to be competitive and even “grow the sales pie” so he can employ more staff – instead of shutting the doors and laying them all off.

The discussion turned to the last vestiges of manufacturing in Australia since major carmakers have closed, or are closing, shop. Not surprisingly the SME (small to medium enterprise) sector is still doing alright, but it accounts for 6.4% of GDP – the lowest of any OECD nation.

Australian SMEs must work on being flexible, and in delivering a product that does not have to travel at “22 knots across the ocean". Robotic manufacturing is seen as a way for SMEs to remain competitive.

Shermine Gulfredson, from UR’s Singapore office, was a little more direct. “Australia is not embracing robotics as the rest of the world is. There is the perception of cost and complexity. Part of the issue is that robots are big and hard to use. That is not the case – there are many types and sizes and cost factors.”

Murphy said that in reality automating the labelling process had given him a return on investment in under a year. He will be looking to more UR use, especially when he can quickly and easily redeploy a UR and adapt it for changing products. He is now more optimistic about the future of the firm.

Jason Furness, chief executive and founder of Manufacturship, said that any manufacturing business could benefit from even a single-arm robot. “People just need to visualise and understand the application these can have in their processes. The preconception that they are hard to implement is not correct.”

“SME manufacturing will only survive and grow if it adopts measures that will allow it to be agile, to quickly switch production and to customise to what customers want. The big Asian factories do not have that agility. They are all about scale and quantity – that a local business can provide. Produce it next door – ships still have to travel at 22 knots,” he said.

Furness said that SMEs needed to look around to find opportunities that robotics could open up, “Government, defence, food production and processing, short-run manufacturing, materials handling and logistics, are all wide open,” he said.

He acknowledged the financial risks to SMEs and said that other sources of finance similar to what is happening in the venture and start-up capital market needed to be cultivated.

Despite a good discussion we all concluded that “People still don’t get robotics. They are not taking jobs but allowing SMEs to do more and retain jobs.”

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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