While some 99 percent of Australian manufacturing industry consists of SMEs that often have low volume, high value production runs, current industrial automation is largely designed for high volume, low variation processes. To meet their needs, SMEs generally require more flexible, lower cost approaches to production.
A recently released White Paper from the CSIRO Future Manufacturing Flagship focuses on the need for affordable investment in technology. It points to recent advances in robotics and information and communications technology, and the need for close collaboration between worker and robot to achieve optimum outcomes.
More affordable new approaches to automation are required including assistive automation to provide flexibility in support of high variety low volume production runs. CSIRO's Dr Peter Kambouris says we need to change the way we manufacture by providing companies with more flexible systems to deliver customised products.
"Avenues are being investigated to introduce appropriate automation into SMEs with a view to adding value and assisting the worker through autonomous solutions, rather than replacing the worker," Dr Kambouris said.
"This is a very unique paradigm shift for Australia that involves providing the robot with perception so that it knows what is around it and can navigate through its environment to grasp and manipulate items in the production process.
"There is a need for new thinking to look at manufacturing processes in a different way, where the robot assists the worker or is directed by the worker. CSIRO is working on building a robot to assist the worker, incorporating the use of information systems to provide knowledge to help the worker to do complex tasks, which in turn will lead to enhanced quality control and improved productivity.
"Significant productivity improvements could also be achieved by looking at how data and information is linked and transferred in the supply chain. New systems are required to handle information."
The CSIRO White Paper emphasises that to maximise competitiveness, Australian manufacturers need to seek alternative affordable investment solutions that provide flexibility to respond to volatile demand.
To assist in the way ahead, significant technological advances are being made in a new generation of lightweight robots with advanced vision systems that are particularly suited to the requirements of SMEs.
These robots form a key component of CSIRO's Lightweight Assistive Manufacturing Solutions (LAMS) concept that is designed to work with and make work easier for humans and to deliver a potential new era of flexibility and agility to Australia's manufacturing industry.
CSIRO has developed wearable technology that provides workers with access to a virtual pair of expert eyes and hands to guide them through difficult tasks via a head-mounted camera. The system consists of a helper unit and an operator unit, both of which use a wearable computer, a head mounted camera, and a near eye display with video screen.
Through a shared visual space between the helper and the operator, the operator can virtually see the helper's hands pointing and gesturing to objects visible through the near eye display.
Developed initially for use in the mining industry, the ReMote system is currently being trialled in manufacturing industry in the USA and in a Melbourne manufacturing company. Kambouris believes that by providing access to expert helpers in real time, the new ReMote technology has the potential to make SMEs more agile and more competitive.
In Singapore, manufacturing accounts for some 20 percent of GDP, and key sectors include electronics, chemicals, precision engineering and biomedical.
The country is currently experiencing full employment and a shortage of manpower, and as a result, there is a strong focus to boost productivity and one of the ways is on the continuing development and uptake of industrial robotics.
A new breed of industrial robots is emerging that is easier to teach and programme, interfaces more with humans and is easier to operate.
The Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), a research institute of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), is playing a key role in carrying out collaborative research with academic institutions, co-developing automation equipment and machines with companies, transferring technology, and conducting training for manufacturing industry.
With more than 360 engineers and scientists employed, SIMTech is proactively assisting SMEs to move up the value chain through a variety of programs backed by a combination of government and industry client funding sources.
According to Dr Guilin Yang, senior scientist and group manager of mechatronics at SIMTech, there is a strong focus on high value manufacturing, and the human-robot interface where robots become co-workers, particularly in relation to carrying out manual and repetitive tasks.
"Robots with an increasing number of axis are being developed to undertake a greater range of tasks. Generic manipulators can be equipped with different tools to work with high mix, low volume products," Dr Yang explained during a recent interview in Singapore.
"Robots are being reconfigured to handle different products in unstructured environments which provides greater flexibility in production processes, and a lot of development is going into ease of programming and control.
"Significant advances in robotics technology for manufacturing industry include precision mechtronics (mechanical engineering combined with electronics) featuring high speed and high accuracy as well as high dexterity and adaptability. This makes these robots easier and safer to use in a human-robot interface.
"Key areas of research include hybrid force-motion control and integrated manipulator and sub-system design, together with sensors to identify objects and improve safety at the workstation. Mobile manipulators are also being developed that are proving very useful for materials transfer on the shop floor as well as flexible systems of automation and autonomous vehicles to handle different products."
Dr Yang says some 65 percent of SIMTech clients are SMEs that are provided with a range of assistance, including the T-up technology upgrading scheme, where researchers are attached to SMEs to identify needs and help in developing technologies to meet those needs.
SIMTech and the National University of Singapore Faculty of Engineering recently launched joint research laboratories in precision motion systems and industrial robotics geared towards high value manufacturing and improving productivity.
The joint laboratories aim is to boost industry automation by enhancing the capability, performance and intelligence of precision machines and robotic systems to allow for higher throughput, higher accuracy, and greater human-machine co-operation on unstructured manufacturing shop floors.