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Is automation the way forward for manufacturing?

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One of the main advantages of automation and robotics in manufacturing is the significant increase in efficiency and productivity

Automation and robotics have become indispensable parts of the 21st century manufacturing landscape, thus revolutionizing the industry in profound ways.

These technological advances have transformed traditional production processes, improving efficiency, precision and productivity while reducing costs and human error. By integrating automation and robotics into manufacturing, companies can streamline operations and supply chains, apart from improving quality control.

In this article, International Finance has examined the various roles that automation and robotics play in manufacturing and highlights their benefits, challenges, and future prospects.

Increased efficiency and productivity

Automation and robotics bring a significant increase in efficiency and productivity in the manufacturing sector. The machines do not tire and do not need breaks. This constant workflow minimizes downtime and optimizes production capacity. Robots can perform repetitive tasks accurately and quickly, resulting in higher output and overall improved efficiency.

Advanced robots can perform complex operations quickly, resulting in shorter turnaround times and higher performance. With automated systems handling tasks like assembly, packaging, and material handling smoothly, human professionals can focus on more important and value-added activities like research, development, and process improvement.

Automated systems can also perform inspections and tests with unprecedented accuracy and consistency. This eliminates the risk of human error and ensures products meet strict quality standards. Robots equipped with vision systems and sensors can identify defects and anomalies in real-time, preventing defective items from entering the market.

In addition, automation allows for continuous monitoring and data collection throughout the manufacturing process. This data can be analyzed to identify patterns, trends and opportunities for improvement. By resolving issues in a timely manner, manufacturers can improve product quality and reduce waste. The ability to maintain consistent quality standards has a significant impact on customer satisfaction and brand reputation.

Automation and robotics are also having a profound impact on the supply chain, streamlining logistics and inventory management. Automated systems can track and manage inventory levels in real-time, ensuring efficient replenishment. They can also facilitate seamless coordination between suppliers, manufacturers and distributors, reducing delays and minimizing disruptions in the supply chain.

In addition, automation enables just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, where components and materials are delivered exactly when they are needed, eliminating the need for large inventories. This approach reduces inventory costs, minimizes the risk of inventory obsolescence, and improves overall operational efficiency. Robotics and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) can also be used in warehouse operations, enabling efficient material handling and order processing.

Automation and robotics contribute to the safety conditions in the manufacturing environment. By automating dangerous tasks and removing human workers from potentially dangerous situations, the risk of workplace accidents and injuries is significantly reduced. Robots are well suited for tasks that require heavy lifting, exposure to pollutants, or working in extreme temperatures.

No, automation doesn’t lead to unemployment

Contrary to popular belief, the integration of automation and robotics does not necessarily result in job losses. Rather, it often leads to a change in the nature of work. Automation allows human workers to take on more complex, creative, and higher-value roles, such as programming, maintaining, and monitoring automated systems. Collaborative robots, so-called cobots, work together with human workers, thus increasing productivity and efficiency while ensuring a safe working environment.

Automation and robotics also offer manufacturers the opportunity to adapt to changing market demands and production requirements. Traditional manufacturing facilities often involve fixed production lines, which limits flexibility and agility.

However, with automation, manufacturers can quickly reconfigure their processes to accommodate new products or variations without significant downtime.

Robots equipped with advanced programming and sensing capabilities can easily switch between tasks and product variants, enabling efficient changes to the production line. This flexibility allows manufacturers to respond more quickly to customer needs, reduce time to market, and remain competitive in dynamic industries.

Excelling in tasks with precision

Automation and robotics excel at tasks that require precise movement, measurement, and repeatability. Human workers can have inherent limitations in repetitive tasks, leading to variations in quality and consistency. However, robots can always perform tasks with sub-millimetre accuracy and maintain the same level of precision throughout the manufacturing process.

For example, in industries like electronics and automotive manufacturing, automated systems can precisely place components on circuit boards or assemble intricate parts with high accuracy, ensuring consistent quality and reducing the chance of errors.

Automation and robotics generate large amounts of data throughout the manufacturing process. This data can be used to uncover valuable insights and make data-driven decisions that optimize operations and drive continuous improvement. Manufacturers can use machine learning algorithms to analyze the collected data and identify patterns, anomalies and opportunities for improvement.

This approach enables manufacturers to make proactive decisions to increase productivity, reduce waste, and optimize resource allocation. Additionally, predictive maintenance is another valuable application of data analytics in manufacturing.

By monitoring equipment performance and analyzing data from sensors and automation systems, manufacturers can predict potential equipment failures and proactively plan maintenance activities, minimizing unplanned downtime and maximizing production availability.

Industrial robotics’ market trends

The global industrial robotics market size was $37,876.0 million in 2020 and is expected to reach $116,848.7 million by 2030 with a CAGR of 11.7% from 2021 to 2030. Meanwhile, labour costs across the United Kingdom are increasing by over 12% each year, leading to a shortage of labour. To overcome such problems, market players are investing in industrial robotics.

For example, in January 2022, the government invested in robotics to help the British people and economy deal with the inflationary crisis caused by labour shortages. In addition, it is estimated that US labour costs will increase by over 20%. This is therefore leading to an increase in industry initiatives to adopt robots to offset the labour costs and shortages that are driving the industrial robotics market. In addition, according to data from North America Factories and Industries, manufacturers and industrial users ordered more than 25,000 robots in 2021 compared to 2019.

High imports of robots are attributed to their use in the microelectronics industry, where small robots are used to pick and place small components. According to the trends, the global microelectronics industry has grown by more than 10% since 2010. Therefore, the growth in the microelectronics industry, which requires a larger number of robots, is expected to drive the industrial robot market.

Furthermore, during the COVID outbreak, the construction, manufacturing, hotel and tourism industries have been severely affected. Production activities have been discontinued or restricted. Construction and transportation activities as well as supply chains have been hampered on a global scale. This led to a decrease in the manufacture of industrial robots as well as their demand in the market, thereby slowing down the growth of the industrial robotics market.

Conversely, industries are gradually resuming their regular production and service operations. This is expected to bring industrial robotics companies back to full capacity, which will likely help the market recover by the end of 2024.

In January 2022, DHL Supply Chain invested $15 million in robotic solutions for the supply chain network in the warehouses. Robots contribute to a simple supply chain network by reducing long-term costs, increasing productivity, reducing errors and optimizing picking operations. According to industrial robotics market trends, it is estimated that the supply chain market will grow by over 100% by 2026. Hence, with the growing supply chain network, the increasing need for cost savings and efficiency gains is creating new market opportunities.

The industrial robotics market is segmented by type, industry, function and region. On the basis of type, the market is segmented into joint, card, SCARA, cylinder and other segments. By industry, it is categorized into Automotive, Electrical & Electronics, Chemical, Rubber & Plastics, Machinery, Food & Beverage, and others. By function, it is divided into soldering and welding, material handling, assembly and disassembly, painting and applying, milling, cutting and machining, and others.

Challenges and the future

While automation and robotics offer numerous benefits, their implementation presents certain challenges. The initial investment required to implement automated systems can be significant and discourage smaller manufacturers from adopting these technologies.

Additionally, integrating automation into existing manufacturing processes can require significant reconfiguration and staff training. However, advances in technology and falling costs are making automation more accessible and affordable. Smaller automation solutions are emerging, allowing manufacturers of all sizes to reap the benefits.

The future of automation and robotics in manufacturing holds enormous potential. As technology continues to advance, we can expect further integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), and robotics, leading to smarter and more autonomous systems. Collaborative robots or cobots are becoming more common, working hand in hand with human workers in a safe and collaborative environment. These cobots will have advanced sensor capabilities and intuitive interfaces that will enable seamless human-robot interaction and collaboration.

In addition, the concept of “lights-out manufacturing”, in which factories operate completely autonomously without human intervention, is gaining traction. Uninterrupted production can provide significant benefits in terms of cost reduction, production efficiency and 24/7 operation.

However, the implementation of “lights-out manufacturing” requires robust automation systems, AI-driven decision-making algorithms, and advanced security measures. Additionally, the rise of additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, is poised to revolutionize manufacturing processes. 3D printing enables rapid prototyping, customization and on-demand production, reducing lead times and eliminating complex supply chains. The integration of automation and robotics with 3D printing technologies can open up new possibilities for highly efficient and agile manufacturing.

The manufacturing industry has experienced a significant transformation thanks to automation and robotics. These advancements have improved efficiency, quality control, safety, and collaboration. Further developments will enhance their capabilities, enabling flexibility, data-driven decision-making, and the possibility of lights-out manufacturing. The decreasing costs also make automation more accessible to businesses of all sizes. Companies must adopt these technologies to stay competitive, streamline operations, boost productivity, and meet market demands.

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