Industrial Robots Boosting Manufacturing Growth in 2022

The 20’s thus far have been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on world economies and ushered in a period of instability for the broader manufacturing sector. This has been exacerbated in recent months by the now very real Russian invasion of the Ukraine. What was once a robust and predictable industry, built around ideas of mass production and stable supply chains, suddenly finds itself struggling to adapt to new challenges in a rapidly evolving world.

The good news is that after suffering through the Global Financial Crisis over a decade ago, many manufacturers have pivoted towards increasing flexible ways of working – one built around robots and adaptive manufacturing. It is now abundantly clear that the old way of doing things isn’t going to allow the broader manufacturing base to be successful in the 20’s and beyond.

It should come as no surprise that the COVID pandemic exposed multiple manufacturing vulnerabilities and ushered in new challenges. In 2022, forward-thinking companies are focusing on overcoming these challenges with a more adaptive manufacturing philosophy. This approach to manufacturing is focused around five core elements – an increase in globalisation of markets, fluctuating manufacturing costs, shifting customer expectations, changing regulations, and of course market volatility.

Increased access to global markets has dramatically transformed the global economy over the last few decades, and this trend is only increasing. While this trend has been positive, it also presents unique challenges for manufacturing. Companies must be hyper-aware of both local and global market fluctuations and trends. In a world where the market can change seemingly overnight, the ability to quickly adapt and respond is paramount, and servicing customers can be an even bigger challenge, with a far greater number of suppliers for any given customer to access.

With increased access to global markets comes the associated volatility, adding more uncertainty than ever to the supply matrix. Manufacturers have to be more aware than ever of the costs associated with manufacturing, including labour, materials, and transportation. In recent years, transportation costs have spiked erratically, fueled by lower airline availability in a pandemic, port and shipping issues, and in more recent times, a significant increase in the price of fuel.

In an open market with no borders, often the result is an increase in pressure on manufacturers to reduce product prices. Manufacturers often find themselves needing to innovate, or in a downward spiraling race to the bottom to maintain workflow and contracts. Automation, in the form of robots, can often help adaptive companies make the best use of their capital equipment, by optimising available production hours, and allowing for capital costs including rent to be amortised over larger production volumes. Robots can help achieve these goals by without compromising on quality.

Another element significantly influencing manufacturing strategies is regulation. Regulations are constantly being updated to reflect the latest best practices, and yet in a global market, those same regulations can vary significantly, country to country. Consumers today are more environmentally conscious than ever before, creating a drive for businesses to utilise more sustainable manufacturing techniques. And sustainability is just one slice of the pie; labour and wider business regulations are also continually shifting. While there’s no doubt that a more sustainable future is the way forward, some companies are finding that the integration of these regulations at a ground floor level can be challenging. Robotics presents an opportunity, where waste can be reduced at the point source of origin, by improving things such as transfer efficiency in painting operations, or optimising coolant used on a die, or additive versus subtractive manufacturing techniques. By reducing the amount of material used, the flow on effects of waste can be reduced. Whether that be paint overspray onto the surrounding area, or volatile organic carbons being exhausted into the atmosphere, a strategy of reducing waste at the point source of origin can be undertaken with automation in mind.

Market volatility is the other overriding factor in manufacturing strategy. The coronavirus pandemic applied significant pressure to supply chains and global trade as a whole. Additionally, consumers have had to rapidly change how they interact with businesses, largely switching to a digital-first model where there is a significant shift to buying online. As a result, consumer preferences have evolved far more quickly in the last few years than the preceding decade. In a volatile market, manufacturers who can adapt rapidly to these changes are more likely to thrive than their less adaptable counterparts.

Personalisation and hyper-personalisation are major trends in today’s market. Companies have realised the power of taking a personalised approach to product design and marketing. Put simply, consumers are more likely to buy products that fit their specific wants and needs than something fit for the masses. However, this poses a problem for the manufacturing industry. Traditionally, manufacturing hasn’t been considered flexible, customisable, and adaptable. Industrial robots excel at highly structured and repeatable tasks. However, correctly designed systems can incorporate a high degree of flexibility for small batch manufacturing. These systems are designed to utilise advanced and flexible software that can be quickly reprogrammed while minimising costly downtime. The robot should have the ability to switch to a new task without significant downtime – any length of time that the system needs to be shut down for the robot to be reprogrammed can’t be considered adaptable. The robot should be able to self-adjust and correct for errors, without outside interference.

The key to gaining a competitive edge in 2022 and beyond comes down to how quickly you can respond to rapidly shifting market pressures. Depending on your current situation, there are several key fit for purpose elements that need to be considered, namely the ease at which you can program and reprogram the robot, and the adaptability of the robot to be repurposed. Human Machine Interface (HMI) technology has made it far simpler to program robots. Whether this be a brand specific CAD package that takes the surface topography of the part, and creates a path, or a HMI program that will run a Robotics Process Automation (RPA) script to create a path based on dimensional characteristics, the important characteristic is that it is easy and straightforward to program. If it is a complex process that requires a significant amount of downtime, and specialist skills and knowledge, its likely that the system won’t be flexible and easy to use. Another consideration is the bottle necks caused by reprogramming – will this result in the manufacturing floor grinding to a halt, or can the bulk of the work be completed offline? Each of these factors can affect the adaptability and flexibility of the system.

In a competitive environment with increasing pressures from globalisation of markets, fluctuating manufacturing costs, shifting customer expectations, changing regulations, and market volatility, a flexible automation solution can help organisation’s respond to these challenges. The key to success here is to be deliberate choice of robot cells that are designed with an inherent flexibility, which can be easily reprogrammed for new tasks. Global markets to continue to evolve at a rapid rate over the remainder of the 20’s, as the only certainty is uncertainty. The challenge to manufacturers is to shore up their operations, and innovate before they evaporate.