The world of robotics is constantly changing, and the needs of each industry can be very different. That is why we partnered with consultant Simon Whitton, the managing director of SIRO Consulting Ltd, a boutique consulting company focused on the Industrial Robot and Automation markets. He has more than 35 years of experience in the robotics automation space and has extensive knowledge in robotics, automation, and manufacturing.
Part two of this series will focus on how to implement robots.
I have a small manufacturing company, what should I do to find out if robotics is a match for my business?
The RIA and A3 have fantastic resources—a lot of examples and articles. I’d also take a look at robot companies. Research them and look for application examples that match what you are looking for on their websites. Visit tradeshows and talk to people there. You can also check out system integrators. If you have questions about them, you can go to the RIA and see if a particular integrator is certified. It’s good to know that you’re working with someone who knows what they are doing. Robot companies usually have a set of certified integrators they work with on their websites as well.
Who can help identify areas of my business that robots could help improve?
Robot companies have experienced salespeople who are familiar with different applications and can come to your location. You can walk your production floor with them and highlight some of the areas where you feel automation might be beneficial or point out potential choke points in your organization where you want to improve efficiency. The salesperson can help you with that. They also have access to sales application engineers who can further support the effort. You can also do the same thing with a system integrator.
There are so many robots, cobots, ARV, AGV, STR, and mobile robots. How do I know which one is right for me? Where do I start?
You want to look at your manufacturing space. Obviously, if somebody’s thinking about robots, they’ve had a thought about a particular process, application, or manufacturing area where they see this idea of consistent use or consistent movement would be really helpful. I think that is a good starting point.
Then, think about the issues around that. Do you need to bring staff into it? Do you need to take parts away from it? How often is human interaction needed to make the process work?
Also, take a look at your application and decide what is most important—high speed, high precision, intermittent space sharing, loading and unloading, parts needing to be brought to and from the process. Then you’ll know, more or less, what you’re looking for. You shouldn’t worry about whether you need a robot or a cobot. You should be concerned with your application needs, then discuss what thought process you have with a salesperson, applications engineer, or system integrator, and they can turn it into a proposal.
Maybe an AGV seems like a good thing to do, but you could get the same result from merely repositioning a machine tool. The AGV is going to be one solution, but if you move one machine tool next to another and put a robot in between, you don’t need an AGV.
What do I need to understand about robots and programming? Are there any robots that are easier to program than others?
In general, path programming of robots is very easy, regardless of the technology you choose. However, the interfacing of third-party devices, networks, and safety strategies will always require a slightly more advanced skill set. We refer to this work as integration. The ease of the integration depends on the complexity of the application. If you start out with a lot of external devices that are communicating, or you need to monitor a conveyor or something of that sort, then it can get reasonably complex, but that’s the job of the robot company and system integrator. You have to remember, if you’re using an outside resource to help you, most end-users are not doing the programming or the integration.
The industry offers a lot of resources. Robotics manufacturers have training schools in both programming and, if needed, in maintenance. In operations, it isn't that big of a deal.
How reliable are robots/cobots? What maintenance do they need? If I don’t have a maintenance staff, what options for maintenance do I have? How long do robots/cobots last?
Robots are very reliable. They’re more reliable than they have ever been. They are used widely across almost all manufacturing industries in critical positions.
We see incredible meantime between failure figures for robots when they are operated properly. It’s more likely that misuse will lead to a reliability problem rather than the robot going about its pre-programmed tasks.
The maintenance requirements for a robot can vary widely depending on the type of robot. Smaller robots tend to require less maintenance since the smaller gearboxes are generally lubricated with grease that is suitable for the life of the robot. Larger robots may utilize oil to lubricate larger gearboxes that require changing every couple years, depending upon your utilization of the robot. This process is very similar to changing the oil on your car. Regardless of the robot type, every robot needs an annual inspection to check controller fans, inspect cables, and test the backup batteries.
Keep in mind, the mainstream robot suppliers offer support for all these requirements. For maintenance, you can have service contracts where a technician will visit your facility on a predetermined schedule to ensure the optimal health of your robots. Additionally, you can access 24/7 call center support for any emergencies or concerns with the equipment. If you wish, you can even have the robots connected through Industry 4.0/IoT, so you can have direct communication with the robot provider.
Robot companies are used to supporting critical industries, customers, and applications. If you go to a mainstream robot manufacturer, you can expect a very well-developed support system.
The question about how long a robot will last is difficult because it will depend so much on the equipment demands and maintenance performed. A good parallel for this is how long should a car last? It’s a good question, isn’t it? There are vintage cars all over the place, but then you have another car that’s 15 years old and on the scrap heap because there was zero maintenance, zero respect given to it, and it was driven within an inch of its life all the time. The situation with your robots will be same.
ROI—what do I need to know to ensure robotics is the right way to go?
I think the most important thing to say here is that the robot is only expensive once—the day you buy it. After that, its cost is mostly fixed and relatively low. There are some other variable costs for maintenance, which you amortize across the life of the robot. With the costs defined in your ROI model, you just need to consider all the other potential benefits of your decision.
Typically, a robot can work with great scheduling flexibility. As your production demands, it can be quicker, slower, multi-shift, single shift, weekend work, three days a week—whatever is required.
And you have the additional benefit of getting the return on investment on the robot as well as the associated production system. For example, the robot may allow for enhanced uptime on your press or increased throughput on your CNC machine.
If the robot has freed up a worker to do something else, you get that additional value from the person doing that secondary task, such as performing quality inspections, improving production planning, or managing workflows in your business.
There are customers who see a return on investment in well under a year through the increased output and reduced management and running costs. And since robots are highly accurate and repetitive, they deliver higher quality, which adds to the savings.
What is the one thing you want everyone to know before they look at robotics?
Robots are helping companies across the world maintain competitiveness and productivity. There are a lot of robots installed in the world today, so you can be confident they will provide a high-quality, low-risk production solution for you. Robots are a widely accepted production tool for manufacturers, and they are a fantastic way of supplementing your workforce and getting the consistent production and quality output that you are looking for.
Simon Whitton is the managing director of SIRO Consulting Ltd, a boutique consulting company focused on the Industrial Robot and Automation markets. He has more than 35 years of experience in the robotics automation space and has extensive knowledge in robotics, automation and manufacturing.
Before joining SIRO Consulting, he was the North American Senior VP Sales & Marketing for KUKA Robotics where he was part of the executive committee and worked with the regional management team and local sales and marketing managers from each country in North America to coordinate efforts and ensure strategic alignment.
Prior to KUKA, Mr. Whitton served in several positions over 31 years with Stäubli. During his time as UK robot manager he was chosen to establish the three segments of the company’s plastics automation market: automotive, consumer and technical plastics. Later, Mr. Whitton helped develop VALplast, a new product that that enabled direct interfacing between a robot and an injection molding machine.
In 2005, he was made robot manager of the Asia Pacific Region and tasked with setting up robot activities in key markets that had previously only been represented by distributors, including: China, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia and Australia. By 2016, his team accounted for nearly one-fifth of the global division headcount. As division marketing manager, he was responsible for the global message development, as well as the marketing control and introduction of the organization’s next generation collaborative robots.
A respected industry thought leader in the robotics industry, Mr. Whitton was a regular specialist speaker at CLSA Securities Japan events, and has been interviewed for the International Robot Exhibition and Robotics articles for the RIA and other media outlets.
Mr. Whitton studied mechanical engineering at the City and Guilds Institute in London and earned a Diplome Marketing (DipM) from the CIM Business School. He is a member of both the Chartered Institute of Marketing (MCIM) and Institute of Sales and Marketing Management (MinstSMM).