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 one of this series will focus on what robotics is and how it may affect your business.
When looking at robotics, many are confused about what it is. Could you provide a basic description?
Basically, a robot is a group of servo motors that work in a coordinated way through a mathematical model to create three-dimensional movement. It’s basically a machine element that accomplishes the handling of materials and processes in an environment that is unsuited or difficult for humans. This could be due to high processing speeds, heavy part weight, or other environmental hazards such as heat, dust, and contamination in the workspace.
Robots are easily programmed with software where the user can literally “teach” the robot a movement it will repeat. This provides manufacturers with on-demand, repeatable, high-speed, repetitive motion, no matter the time of day, no matter the temperature or shift—it doesn’t matter—the machine will just carry on without any breaks, without any fatigue, and without any variation in performance. And, essentially, that’s what manufacturers can benefit from.
What does a small business need to understand before shopping for a robot?
The first thing the business owner needs to do is evaluate their manufacturing environment and really get comfortable with what they can automate. They need to have a sense of what motion they want. In other words, what type of process or application are they looking to achieve? Are they lifting boxes? Are they loading a machine tool? Are they packaging things? What is it they are looking for? What is the extent of what they want to do?
And so, it’s the Pareto principle, isn’t it? The 80-20 rule. Focus on grouping together objects or products that are similar and can be dealt with similarly, rather than trying to address everything and then you begin to compromise the 80 percent to achieve the 20 percent. And they’ll need some help with that.
But, broadly speaking, it’s asking some questions. Where can I use the robot on my manufacturing shop floor? Where am I seeing people repeatedly doing tasks they bring little additional value to? And could I put a machine in there to execute that motion?
It’s also important to understand the repeatability requirements of your process. If you’re assembling parts, then you need to know if the individual components are repeatable, both in their dimension and position. If they are repeatable, then you may have the opportunity for automation. If they are not, you may be adding complexities that need to be considered.
So, you need to be certain that the repeatability of the part or the action of putting one to another does not matter. Now, if I am putting a box into another box, it’s not too important. But, when you’re trying to put two pieces of metal together by connecting them or snapping them together and they’re not the same, you have a big problem.
The next thing they would need to consider from an investment cost standpoint is, what is involved? Is their manufacturing floor set up for robotics, meaning do they have space where they could put a robot? Is safety a concern for them? Do they have a way of addressing the potential safety issues that come with automation? Do they have the skill set necessary to implement and support a robot in their facility?
They also have to consider the future. What is their manufacturing environment going to look like 6,12, and 24 months from now? And are they going to be putting a robot in place that offers the flexibility to grow with their business?
Let’s say a small manufacturing company has decided to implement robotics. What advice would you give them?
The best way for anyone to get started with robotics is to do their due diligence and learn all they can about the industry. This can and should involve contacting robot manufacturers to learn about their products: what they can and cannot do, how to get them set up, and the requirements for implementation. They might even want to consider taking a training class, so they can understand the technology better. It would be a small investment to ensure they step forward into a robotics implementation with some knowledge.
They will also want to get some outside help and have somebody like a system integrator and/or a robotics company come in and look at what they want to do. Utilize their expertise. Engage with them. Show them what it is you want to do. Ask where they see the important steps or challenges. And similarly, if you’re thinking of building a complete system, you will want to bring in a system integrator to get a sense of the complexity and things you may have overlooked. That will give you a much better sense of the cost. Do not commence your automation work worrying about the cost. Instead, embrace the technology with an open mind to determine what it can do for you. Your ROI model will determine how much and where to invest. The more straightforward applications are not typically expensive.
What tasks are best for robots?
Things that need to be done continuously, at high speeds, or repeatedly, and things that are dull, dirty, or dangerous—these are tasks where you can often use robots tremendously well.
You get the full benefit of using the robot, because it doesn’t matter about the environment, the repetition, or that some things are dangerous. It’s irrelevant. So, you get the most efficient process, and then you bring in people where they can bring additional value. The robot can be as simple as you want it to be, simply executing movement over and over, or it can be quite sophisticated if you want it to make decisions, assess criteria, or analyze. It can do that, too, within reason on the information it can get.
It really depends what you want. But, in the beginning, go for something easy to do.
Where can robots be used?
As we talked about earlier, if there are heavy payloads, high speeds, ergonomic challenges, or a dirty or dangerous environment, it can be a good place to use a robot. That means they can go essentially anywhere you have space. All you have to do is put barriers around the robot system, and you can more or less attack any process that requires reorientation. If you have an application that requires positioning, packaging, handling, or machines that need to be loaded or unloaded, it can do all of those things as well.
You can also move robots into areas where people need to be nearby or occasionally nearby and operate them without physical barriers or having to separate them from the workers. So, I would say they can be used basically anywhere across the manufacturing floor, from machining raw materials or handling raw materials through the packaging of the final product. They can fit across the entire organization.
Where do you feel robotics is not a good solution?
Think carefully about deploying robotics into unstructured environments. Normally, if you’re expecting the robot to find product, pick it up fast, and do something with it in a timely manner, the process needs to have consistency.
Of course, it is possible to work with high variances in parts, including colors, shapes, and orientations. These variations will normally introduce additional technologies such as sensors, cameras, and potentially even some artificial intelligence software. These items will add both complexity and cost to your solution.
Another thing to consider is if you have something in the area that is going to compromise the ability of the robot to work well. If you have a robot that is constantly being stopped or slowed by human interaction or space sharing, the robot will not be as productive. It will always adapt, stop, or avoid and, therefore, not be able to execute.
This is also a good spot to mention that robots have limitations. It might be reach, speed, or lack of access to the work area. As surprising as it may sound, sometimes a robot cannot move fast enough. We’ve encountered applications where the actual process is beyond what the robot can do. If you have to move a part that is 300 kilograms, and you have to move it 5 meters in a second and a half, that is way too fast and far for such a big payload.
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).