A Universal Robots cobot in action

Manufacturing’s new flexible friend

You’ll find no preamble about ‘unprecedented times ‘here. We’re far enough down the line to know the impact that Covid 19 has had on all industries, and we’ve watched the best brains in the world apply themselves in finding safe solutions to get business up and running. However, nowhere has this been more critical than in manufacturing, where we regularly hear reports of factories closing through superspreading events, where close physical proximity with co-workers can contribute to a high-risk environment.

However, some manufacturers are discovering that their pre-pandemic investment in cobots – collaborative robots – has already paid dividends in this respect, mitigating infection risk and inadvertently creating a ‘crisis ready’ environment. By putting in place a workflow where people and machines work side-by-side, human contact is naturally limited to safe social distancing standards. At the same time, many, many other organisations are now investigating, beginning or accelerating the process of automating through cobotics, as both a way to address today’s Covid-changed landscape and to future-proof their businesses against the expected – and the unexpected. And well they might. Even before the pandemic, companies that had already adopted cobots into their manufacturing were seeking to enter a new age of efficiency, price competitiveness and increased demand.

The body of a man in a high-vis jacket, he stands in a warehouse holding a tablet computer.
By their nature, cobots do not work in isolation and this presents an opportunity for upskilling among existing employees.

Expecting the unexpected

Safety aspects and social distancing aside, uncertainty is now absolutely a key driver for change. Making a business ‘unpredictability-proof’ is a tough ask, but the ability to adapt quickly plays an important part in weathering storms. Labour shortages and fluctuations in supply and demand have been ongoing uncertainties for a while now, but since the early part of the year, we have also seen how some manufacturing businesses have been able to respond to the crisis by making extraordinary commercial changes of direction. Some were able to completely redeploy their machines and workforces to respond to heavy shifts in consumer demands. Others could quickly offer their support in manufacturing new lines of products, such as personal protective equipment and ventilators. While this is obviously important in ‘keeping the lights on’ right now, consumers and the media have long memories and these kinds of swift and positive actions also have an impact on hearts and minds in the future.

Where once huge, caged, single task robots where the norm, today flexibility is an accepted and necessary part of manufacturing. Smaller, lighter and more adaptable, cobots (such as those from Universal Robots) are able to combine with other software and technologies, like network cameras, and undertake the kind of machine-vision driven tasks at that you might normally expect to see in a far bigger industrial setting. It also almost goes without saying, that automation – or semi-automation – makes redeploying resources to a new way of working much faster. This is particularly true in the cobotics space where one of the key benefits of these more affordable, safe and lower payload machines is their ability to switch operation with the minimum of disruption, requiring a single trained operative to reprogramme it to a new task.

A cobot can be purchased, programmed and set-up for use in under a day

Speeding up change, catching up fast

Another learning for manufacturers has been in how to deal with unexpected facility closure. When operations need to shut down temporarily, the business is immediately hit and must either claw back costs, or double productivity upon reopening. Or, ideally, both. For many, the pre-Covid near-obsession with digital transformation was more about the constant – creating a consistent, calm level of operational efficiency through automation. But when you need to suddenly increase throughput, it takes a combination of the problem-solving and lateral thinking skills of your employees, combined with automated processes that can swiftly up their capacity.

Again, this is not just limited to overnight crises, as today’s organisations should be prepared to exist in a constant state of flux, responding to risk, mitigating the impact of sudden changes in demand and course-correcting where required. Covid 19 has simply amplified the need to work this way and shown us the worst-case scenario. Cobots can prove invaluable in responding to change. Firstly, because they are not fixed to one single task and can be redeployed to increase speed and capacity. Secondly, a cobot can be purchased, programmed and set-up for use in under a day. How’s that for reactivity?

Skills are learned, not programmed

Possibly the most unexpected benefit of introducing cobots into the manufacturing workforce is the human capital it unlocks. In an unpredictable world, it’s time to shift the focus on continual progression and learning for employees, which can reap incredible skills benefits as businesses discover aptitudes and skillsets that might have been lacking in the organisation, right under their noses. Bringing new technologies onto the factory floor can also be the trigger for upskilling, as the nature of the work adjusts. Deloitte refers to this in the frame of ‘individual elasticity’, where new learnings and adapted skills in the most human of areas (such as the ability to draw insights or create to approaches to tasks) sit alongside health and wellbeing for the greater good of the employee.

The barriers of price, slow implementation and long-term impact on employees are simply no longer an issue in bringing effective transformation to the factory floor. And moreover, a humans/cobot workflow immediately creates a safer, more flexible and reactive environment for when new waves of challenges arise. In short, adapt today and be ready for tomorrow.

Canon’s Vision Edition-U image processing software adds vision to cobot tasks. Find out more about what it can do to help manufacturers meet new demands and respond to change.

Written by Andreas Herrnboeck, European Business Development Manager

Related Articles