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Automation: a challenge and an opportunity

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The automating of processes in manufacturing and other industries continues apace, and robot sales have never been higher. Brent Balinski talked to spokespeople from three Australian Packaging and Processing Machinery Association member companies about some recent trends.

In manufacturing and elsewhere, the drive for higher levels of automation is undeniable.

“Demand for ALL types of robots is on the way up,” explained Bill Saylav, Engineering Manager at JMP Engineering, when Manufacturers’ Monthly asked about demand for increasingly popular lightweight robots.

Automation has been a hot topic this year especially, featuring in debates about growing economic inequality and efforts to completely automate container terminals.

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), worldwide purchasing of industrial robots has never been more robust.

The IFR’s figures show about 179,000 robots were sold globally last year.

The standout country was China, buying nearly one in five of all robots sold. Combined, the next four most robot-happy countries, Germany, Japan, USA and Korea accounted for half of the total market.

Asia/Australia stood out as the leading region overall. A regional increase in installations of 18 per cent – to roughly 100,000 – was seen.

In Australia, the rush to robotise was even used recently to explain an increase in joblessness after the ABS showed unemployment creeping up to a 12-year high.

Automation is, according to shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, among the “greatest unspoken challenges” in the national economy.

“There is a disconnect here," he said at the Financial Services Council annual conference earlier this month.

“Productivity is going up but employment is not following to the degree that it should.”

The jobs that automation has replaced aren’t limited to those in logistics and factories, with plenty of examples including in agriculture, trading, and even journalism.

In manufacturing the unavoidable need to automate to stay competitive has been used to explain the decline in demand for lower-skilled jobs, and the overall decrease in manufacturing employment.

As reported earlier this year, recent demand in Australia for robot assistance has been strong, with one company telling this magazine earlier this year that units sold increased from 690 to 1214, “a 76 per cent jump from 2011 to 2012.”

Are some workers worried?

“In short, YES,” Stuart Shaw, Innovations Manager, Machinery Automation & Robotics, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“Production line workers tend to have this view.”

Those positive about the increase in automation say it’ll liberate employees from tedious tasks.

“Robots will free workers from repetitive tasks enabling them to move to more interesting roles,” said Mark Emmett, Managing Director, HMPS.

Saylav said there was some time to go until every production line role has been replaced by a robot.

“We can see that Australia still has a long way to go before it’s saturated by total automation,” he said.

While “ALL” types of robots are in increasing demand, there are some particular trends that some are noticing among types of machines and segments of the manufacturing industry.

According to Emmett, the use of robots in food and beverage has doubled every year in the last five.

Also, “Robots are replacing conventional mechanical systems,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

Saylav agreed that demand was particularly strong in the types of robots required in food and beverage, in “mid- to high-speed” varieties.

“Australians are definitely consuming more than ever before and expect the supermarket shelves to be full at all times,” he explained.

Another trend apparently in effect, pointed out by the IFR and others, is the need for lightweight, particularly collaborative, robots.

The CSIRO has pointed out that these types of machines can offer productivity and flexibility advantages while being safe to integrate into a production line.

“Smaller, lightweight robots are the fastest growing robotic segment,” said Emmett.

Shaw agreed.

“Interest is increasing as the awareness and capabilities of lightweight robots is disseminated,” he said.

“Interest is escalating for collaborative robots that can work safely alongside humans.”

Collaborative ability (including teachability), flexibility, safety and speed all come up in conversations about automation trends.

“High demands require high speeds,” said Saylav, adding that JMP had increased the speed of its offerings in June.

“High speeds [also] require high efficiency.”

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