Automation has always been considered as a key element for profitable, sustainable and cost-effective manufacturing, but there is a misconception that only big manufacturers may have the financial and technical resources to implement it. At the same time, those who do implement it often find themselves stuck in a transition phase where they see no substantial benefits. Here Neil Ballinger, head of EMEA at automation parts supplier EU Automation, offers some tips for small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) on the most cost-effective technologies to boost their productivity and efficiency.
Despite the obvious benefits of automation for manufacturers of all sizes, few are actually reaping its benefits. According to the World Economic Forum, 70 per cent of the world’s manufacturing companies are still lagging behind, stuck in what they call pilot purgatory, where they have significant activity underway, but are not yet seeing meaningful bottom-line benefits from it. To grow their business, SMMs need to focus their attention on user and budget friendly automation technologies.
Why do you need automation?
The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously affected the global manufacturing industry, especially for small and medium-sized manufacturers. Supply chain disruptions and workforce restrictions have had a devastating impact on companies’ expansion.
Automation can bring manufacturers in various industries huge advantages including lower unit costs, higher production rates, increased productivity, more efficient use of materials, better product quality and more. Besides, automation technologies can be used in dangerous or hazardous conditions, which relieves humans from repetitive, dangerous work and thus frees up employees to concentrate on more stimulating tasks that involve decision-making and problem-solving.
Among a myriad of automation technologies, SMMs should opt for ones that they can realistically afford and deploy. For example, technologies such as collaborative robots or cobots and smart sensors are cost-effective choices for SMMs.
Most SMMs cannot afford large, complex robots that don’t fit within their limited floor space and require specialised personnel to program and maintain. However, cobots have special advantages which can help SMMs improve their productivity and workers’ safety. Firstly, compared to traditional industrial robots, cobots can be set up in less than a day, which avoids downtime. Most SMMs may not have a dedicated robotic programmer, but cobots are easy to set up, which means that operators without programming experience can quickly program robotic movements based on logical process steps using intuitive tools.
Traditional industrial robots require a large and separate space, which may add costs and reduce flexibility on the production floor. For SMMs which can’t afford a large area dedicated to robotic operations, lightweight and space saving cobots are the best choice. Besides, with no extra added costs associated with robot programming, set up and dedicated operation space, the average payback period of cobots is only 195 days, which is affordable for most SMMs.
Most SMMs are aware of the Return on Investment (ROI) of a safe working environment. Cobots can perform dangerous or repetitive manufacturing tasks, which helps reduce the risk of costly worker injuries from hazardous tasks and improve employee retention and satisfaction.
Smart sensors are another economical choice for SMMs. Most legacy equipment doesn’t have the communication capabilities needed to gather and analyse data in real time. However, instead of paying for a full upgrade to their equipment, SMMs can retrofit their existing machines with smart sensors that provide these capabilities. Smart sensors can detect abnormal variations in temperature, vibration and other critical parameters and alert maintenance staff that failure may occur. Besides, they can monitor the energy consumption of equipment which, if excessive, can indicate that a component may need to be changed or signal a decline in productivity before it becomes a problem.
Smart sensors can measure all kinds of parameters to help the maintenance team detect potential threats before they cause irreversible damage, such as temperature, vibration, humidity, electric current, flow, oil contamination and more.
Cost-effective but impactful technologies such as cobots and smart sensors are helping manufacturers getting rid of the idea that only global corporations can afford the latest industrial automation solutions. By embracing these technologies, SMMs can thrive and leave the pilot purgatory behind.