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Automation cells and the standardisation of manufacturing components 18/05/2022

The COVID-19 pandemic, a tense socio-political global climate, and an increasingly demanding customer base have all contributed to a growing need for flexibility in manufacturing. As a result, manufacturers need equipment that can be quickly and easily reconfigured, rather than fixed production lines where every change may require weeks of downtime. Neil Ballinger explains the role of automation cells in transitioning to a more agile business model

CUSTOMISATION AND high-mix low-volume (HMLV) production are not new concepts in manufacturing. Both have risen to prominence in the last decade, with the demand for increasingly personalised products and services. These trends require manufacturers to rapidly adapt to changing market conditions, and to reconfigure their production and assembly lines accordingly.

The need for adaptability intensified during the pandemic, when many production plants experienced a boom in demand and needed to set up extra lines to produce critical supplies such as respirator components and personal protection equipment (PPE). On the other hand, some companies needed the flexibility to switch their production to entirely new items — from alcoholic drinks to hand sanitiser, from luxury fashion to medical gowns. 

The solution in a nutshell

In this context, closed-loop automation cells have become increasingly popular. Automation cells, or robot cells as they are often called, are closed systems containing equipment that can automate several stages of the production process. For example, they may include robotic arms that load and unload the parts to be machined, in-feed and out-feed conveyors, and machine vision systems that determine what part is being fed-in, and that measure and inspect post-processed items.   

Compared to traditional production lines, automation cells offer unprecedented flexibility. Since the days of factory pioneer Henry Ford, manufacturing plants have worked in a similar way — with long, linear production lines where items pass from station to station, being processed and finally inspected and shipped. In these lines, every change requires the intervention of multiple experts and can lead to several weeks of expensive downtime.

On the other hand, automation cells allow for a modular and easily scalable factory structure. These cells can be quickly rearranged on the factory floor whenever manufacturers need to restructure the production process — some models even come on wheels. 

Another great advantage of automation cells is that they can be placed in any building where there is enough floor space. This means facilities like empty warehouses can be easily repurposed to set up a new production plant in record times. 

This approach is perfect for manufacturers that need to establish a new production line very quickly, for example to respond to a sudden surge in demand. However, it will also facilitate those who are planning to bring production closer to the final customer to save on logistics costs, reduce lead time and minimise the company’s overall carbon footprint.

For example, British electric vehicles (EVs) start-up Arrival uses flexible automation cells in its microfactories, which are small-scale production plants that the company is planning to set up on the outskirts of cities worldwide. The use of automation cells allows the company to set up new production lines very quickly, so instead of relying on production sites overseas, Arrival has chosen this innovative approach to reduce costs by bringing production closer to where its vehicles are needed.

A further advantage of automation cells is that a factory structured this way can be very easily scaled up and down according to market demand, by simply adding or subtracting cells. This is a great approach for start-ups and smaller manufacturing companies who might not be in the position to invest in a huge and cost-prohibitive facility but want to give themselves space to grow. 

A look within — standard components

The beauty of automation cells is that they contain everything the plant needs to automate the production process — or at least some of its core aspects — in an extremely compact architecture. Like Lego building blocks, the components in the cells are structured so that they all fit together to occupy the least possible space. 

This is leading to an interesting phenomenon in equipment manufacturing — the standardisation of automation machinery. Traditionally, production and assembly lines were bespoke projects that required the expertise of several high-skilled professionals, such as design engineers and systems integrators. Designing, building and testing the line took several months, was extremely expensive, and required long periods of downtime. 

On the other hand, automation cells can be realised in less than one week, although up to three weeks may be needed to map out the necessary tasks within the cell and establish the optimal workflow. There are even useful digital tools to help users in the process. For example, FANUC’s Build Your Cell configurator guides users at every step to create the ideal cell for their application. 

The benefits of automation cells are clear — production can start shortly after the manufacturer perceives the need for new workstations, either because of unprecedented demand, or because of the necessity to adapt production to new specifications. As well as this, costs are minimised and the overall agility of the plant is increased. 

It seems clear that manufacturing is evolving from an industry based on cumbersome, bespoke projects to one that requires extreme flexibility through the use of modular architectures and standardised components. Automation cells offer a great chance to innovate manufacturers’ business models and keep up with the ever-evolving needs of an increasingly demanding global market. 

Neil Ballinger is head of EMEA at EU Automation

For more information: 

www.euautomation.com

Tel: 01785 303300

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The crystal ball: predictive vs preventive maintenance 28/01/2022

There is a big difference between preventive and predictive strategies. Here Neil Ballinger offers an overview of the pros and cons of both methods.

It’s a well-known fact that prevention is better than cure. When it comes to industrial equipment, emergency repairs are notorious for causing extended unplanned downtime, so tackling problems before they occur is generally seen as the best approach. However, there is a big difference between preventive and predictive strategies.

According to a new report published by maintenance specialist Senseye, manufacturers experience an average of 27 hours of downtime a month because of equipment failure, resulting in multi-million revenue losses by the end of the year.

With manufacturers striving to cope with rising competition, rapidly changing consumer trends and an unprecedented pressure to deliver high-quality products quickly, these losses can seriously compromise business’ bottom lines. 

Taking care of existing equipment is one of the most effective ways for manufacturers to minimise costs while delivering on customers’ expectations. As Darren Halford writes in EU Automation’s BoOM – The Book of Obsolescence Management, which can be downloaded from our website: “There is an old adage in Britain that goes if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It means you shouldn’t tamper with things if they are running smoothly. If we want innovation to prevail, this proverb shouldn’t be taken literally. Although it might seem counterintuitive, sometimes the best option is to maintain the status quo. This is often also the most cost-effective solution.”

Historical vs real-time data

Preventive — or preventative — and predictive maintenance are often used interchangeably to refer to maintenance strategies that allow manufacturers to act before equipment fails. Both methods are vastly superior to reactive maintenance, where equipment is run to failure until emergency repairs are needed.

However, preventive and predictive are not the same thing. Preventive maintenance involves carrying out checks at regular intervals, regardless of the equipment’s condition. It relies on best practice guidelines and historical data to give plant managers the best chances to keep machines in good repair, but requires cyclical planned downtime. Moreover, planned checks might be scheduled too infrequently or too late to react to sudden changes in the equipment’s condition, meaning that this method might not always succeed in spotting problems in a timely manner.

On the other hand, predictive maintenance occurs only when needed, relying on real-time data from IIoT-connected equipment to identify potential threats before it’s too late. In this way, repairs address an actual problem and are more targeted, meaning that downtime, when required, will be generally shorter compared to other maintenance methods. The use of real-time data also means that manufacturers can react almost instantly to potential threats. 

As competition increases and manufacturers struggle to keep up with rapidly changing trends, predictive maintenance can be a blessing. As Jim Davison, region director of the South of England at Make UK, recently commented: “predictive maintenance can play a crucial role in not only reducing costs, but also boosting productivity at a time when manufacturers need to be using every tool at their disposal to meet the demands of an ever-changing industry.”  

The problem with big data

Predictive maintenance has clear advantages, but relies on technologies for continuously monitoring equipment and gather valuable data — an approach also known as condition-based maintenance. While the devices to collect data can be relatively inexpensive and easy to set up, processing that data to draw relevant information on the machines’ health is the challenging part. 

IBM estimates that about 90% of all data generated by sensors never get used. This means that manufacturers miss opportunities to make informed decisions about their equipment, while still paying to collect and store unused data. Data that are collected but not processed or used in any way are known as dark data and represent a huge challenge for the industry. 

Dark data can offer manufacturers an untapped resource for potential insight, or may be a costly waste of space, which is why enforcing data policies and training staff on the handling and analysis of data is the first step to manage this information more effectively.

Another issue with big data is the presence of data silos, where data is processed and relevant patterns are discovered, but the resulting insights are not shared among the different departments of an organisation. This can happen because the business doesn’t have the necessary technology in place for data visibility, for example it might lack a unified integrated data management (IDM) tool, and every team might rely on different platforms. 

For example, data suggesting that an electric motor is overheating might be available, but if the C-suite don’t share it with the maintenance team on the production floor in a timely manner, the motor might be doomed to failure. 

Technology that helps

Having sensors to gather significant information on your equipment is the first step to incorporate predictive technique into your maintenance strategy. Recent machines normally come with a variety of options for real-time data acquisition, but legacy equipment can also be retrofitted with inexpensive add-on sensors. 

As a matter of facts, predictive maintenance can be a huge help when dealing with aging assets, which require careful planning when sourcing obsolete spare parts. Retrofitting older assets offers the possibility to not only keep machinery in operation for longer, but also to improve operations by collecting data that could be used for process optimisation.  

However, the impressive amount of dark data in the industry, coupled with the pervasive issue of data silos, shows that gathering data is not enough. To predict equipment failure effectively, manufacturers should implement technologies that facilitate real-time data processing and that allow all relevant personnel to have access to the resulting insights.

In this sense, edge computing can be a valuable solution. One of the problems with data from industrial equipment is that the older it gets, the less relevant and accurate it becomes. By analysing data as close as possible to the source, rather than sending it all to the cloud, edge computing minimises latency and supports real-time decision making.

Edge computing can also help deal with another issue that comes with connecting more equipment to the IIoT — cybersecurity. When data travels back and forth from the cloud, there is an increased risk that it might be compromised. Processing data closer to the source reduces this risk, offering the advantages of increased digitalisation without opening up more potential attack surfaces. This doesn’t mean that processing or storing data in the cloud should be avoided at all costs, but simply that the two options can go hand in hand to maximise results.

Another priority should be the convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT). These used to be managed by separate teams with different skillsets, but the increased digitalisation of manufacturing processes, including maintenance, means that there is now the need to bring these areas together. OT collects raw data from PLCs, motors, sensors and other key equipment, while IT gives the data meaning by uncovering relevant patterns. However, for this to work, both equipment and teams must communicate and collaborate proactively.

Implementing technology for data acquisition and processing can require a sizable initial investment and, most importantly, a radical cultural shift in manufacturing plants. However, the results in term of reduced downtime and increased efficiency will give manufacturers the competitive edge they need to prosper in an increasingly digitalised world.

Neil Ballinger is head of EMEA at EU Automation
www.euautomation.com/uk

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Harsh environment maintenance challenges 23/11/2021

To keep motors reliable and efficient, a well-planned maintenance programme is essential, especially when operating in hazardous areas. Neil Ballinger discusses the maintenance challenges of motors operating in harsh environments

IN 1834, the Prussian engineer Moritz Jacobi innovated the first real rotating electric motors that successfully generated mechanical output power. After four years, he created another motor that could power a boat with 14 people on board across a wide river. Skip to today and electric motors are found in almost everything, from the vacuum cleaners and dishwashers we use at home, to fans, pumps, blowers and turbines in manufacturing plants. A wide range of motors are designed and constructed to work in hazardous locations or harsh environment such as chemical plants, pulp and paper mills and foundries – where maintenance can be very challenging.

Protection from contaminants

Motors operating in hazardous areas are highly exposed to damaging pollutants, including excessive moisture, electrically conductive dust, chemical fumes, explosive gases and more. To protect the working components of the motor, an enclosure can be used. There are many types of enclosures, each offering different levels of protection and cooling. The ones that are generally used for hazardous area motors and heavy-duty motors include explosion-proof (XP) enclosures, dust-ignition-proof enclosures and totally enclosed fan-cooled (TEFC) enclosures.

XP enclosures are designed to contain an internal explosion of a specified hazardous substance inside the motor without igniting flammable gases or particles surrounding the motor. The maintenance of XP enclosures can present several challenges. Since these enclosures are used in corrosive atmospheres, materials including stainless steel or bronze need to be used. The cable entries also require a specific arrangement, which includes reductions, cable clamps, conduits and so on. The use of these particular materials and items may cause high maintenance costs. Furthermore, the safety level of XP enclosures highly depends on their proper maintenance by the plant personnel.

Motors with a TEFC enclosure have exterior surfaces that are cooled by an external fan on the motor shaft. They are widely adopted in dusty, dirty, and corrosive atmospheres. In terms of maintenance, it’s necessary to keep the motor clean to minimise heat transfer. Also, the internal temperature of the motor always needs to be kept higher than the surrounding environment to prevent condensation from forming inside the motor, which may corrode the windings.

Overheating

Particularly for motors operating in areas with extreme temperatures, excessive heat may seriously deteriorate both the winding insultation and the bearings. Moreover, contamination from dust and debris and high levels of vibration could increase the internal temperature of a motor to an unsafe level. Additionally, motors running at higher altitudes might be more likely to suffer from overheating, because reduced air pressure and density can cause larger temperature swings.

To avoid these issues, thorough and regular maintenance is needed. Manufacturers could install smart sensors to detect a motor’s temperature in real time and receive an alert before the motor’s temperature reaches a dangerous threshold. Since the lack of ventilation is also a problem, manufacturers need to ensure that the ventilation holes are clear, and that fans are working properly. In liquid cooled motors, it’s important to regularly monitor coolant levels and to top up when necessary.

Compliance

According to the new EU ecodesign regulation, from 1 July, motors for special purposes rated from 0.75kW to 1MW must reach an efficiency level of at least IE3. The new directives don’t mean that manufacturers in the EU need to replace their existing motors, but that all the new hazardous area motors they purchase from now on must be rated IE3 or higher.

The malfunctions of motors operating in harsh conditions are frustrating, as they cause unexpected hazards and downtime, which adversely affect businesses’ bottom lines. EU Automation offers a comprehensive supply of electric motors for operations in harsh conditions.

Neil Ballinger is head of EMEA at EU Automation

www.euautomation.com

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Remote working in engineering 19/07/2021

For many occupations, working from home during the pandemic has requireed little more than a desk, a PC and an Internet connection. However, maintenance engineers require innovative technology and expert software. Neil Ballinger discusses the requirements

Challenging working conditions require innovative and effective solutions, one being remote condition monitoring (RCM) for industrial equipment. Remote condition monitoring is the ability to view the performance, status and behaviour of a machine from a distance in real time. This is achieved with a combination of Internet of Things (IoT) technology and cloud computing that allows an on-site machine to be tracked by maintenance engineers wherever they are.

How does RCM work?

To be effective, RCM uses three key components — stable connectivity to collect data, a platform to process and store them, and tools to present them to engineers.

Firstly, sensors are being attached to the plant equipment to continuously relay vast amounts of data. The latest machinery comes equipped with such sensors, but for older assets, these sensors can be added into the existing structures. Collecting data requires a standardised industrial connectivity that can support an Industrial IoT platform. The platform establishes a secure connection between the machines and the sensors and provides real-time notifications alerts and cloud storing services.

After data is collected, it needs to be stored and processed accordingly. The metrics are sent to the cloud and stored on the IoT platform to be transformed into actionable information.

Finally, this information is delivered through dashboard applications or mobile notifications to a maintenance engineer. Remote monitoring solutions using the latest applications will also leverage additional features, such as intelligent queuing or routing of notifications, geospatial directions of the asset or even service instructions. From here onwards,  if engineers detect a problem in one of the machines, they can perform root cause analysis, order replacement parts, and direct the maintenance team, all from the comfort of their own houses.

Added benefits of augmented reality

In recent months, large corporations have trialled virtual reality headsets for meetings to give people the impression they sat next to each other. The challenge for maintenance engineers is not only to find a suitable remote working environment, but also to train future engineers for the growing demand in the field. Augmented reality (AR) could replace face to face training and deliver innovative experiences for workers to develop their skills.

Regardless of their location, workers can come together in a virtual setting and share information, while also tracking their work progress in real time. Not only could workers step into a virtual training session, but their work on analysing large amounts of data can be simplified by presenting the data in a visual form, regardless of where they are and what they are doing. For example, as the workplan appears before their eyes, it can be analysed while walking the dog or enjoying a sunny day in the garden.

Thanks to RCM and augmented reality, potential problems can be spotted early on and replacement parts can be ordered before failures can cause downtime and generate financial loss. EU Automation supplies new, reconditioned and obsolete automation and control parts quickly anywhere in the world. This way a maintenance engineer in the United Kingdom could, for example, assist a machine in a plant in Australia in the quickest time. Not only would this reduce downtime, it would also mean experts all over the world could help each other and share knowledge.

While solutions like remote condition monitoring and augmented reality may seem farfetched, the changing conditions of remote working could make them a reality in the near future. For maintenance engineers, such solutions could ensure they are able to do their job from the comfort and safety of their own houses.

Ballinger is head of EMEA at EU Automation

www.euautomation.com

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Is the future of AI open source? 25/05/2021

As as increasing number of businesses realise the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI), the number of solution providers has also grown. While this expansion ensures users have access to ever improving technology, it also leads to fragmentation and a greater chance of manufacturers buying incompatible solutions. Neil Ballinger discusses the role of open source in democratising AI

IN HIS 2004 book The Paradox of Choice — Why More is Less, American psychologist Berry Schwartz argued that reducing the number of choices greatly reduces anxiety for consumers. Schwartz’s thesis has been corroborated by a wide number of studies, showing that an excess of options can make people feel confused and overwhelmed.

This is the situation facing many manufacturers trying to integrate AI in their production lines. Though aware of the operational benefits of AI, small to medium enterprises (SMEs) might be deterred by the cost of proprietary software, its complexity and, last but not least, the sheer abundance on the market.

Small to medium enterprises (SMEs) might be deterred by the cost of proprietary software

Most companies just don’t have the time and resources to spend researching every available tool until they find the one that meets their needs. Once a decision has been made, manufacturers might face yet another hurdle; purchasing exciting new technologies only to find out that they can’t communicate with each other.

Cost and complexity of integration are not the only challenges — lack of skills is another common headache. When graduates enter the job market, they are often faced with myriads of software that they are not familiar with, because the education system cannot possibly keep pace with the number of solutions on the market.

Over time, these barriers stifle progress and hinder a more widespread deployment of AI-based systems.

The open-source revolution

To overcome the challenges posed by proprietary software, more and more AI solution providers are embracing an open-source culture. Making software freely available to a wide number of users has advantages that, over time, can make this model more profitable than keeping algorithms and data protected by copyright.

For example, in 2019 Goldman Sachs released some of the code that its traders use to analyse and manage risk on GitHub and offered additional funding to engineers who managed to build new applications using the code. The benefits of making the code available to the public far outweighed those of keeping it secret — not only can users help improve and finetune the code, Goldman Sachs will also own the intellectual property of any application built using it. It will also have the chance to be an early investor in new and promising technology.

Recently, a growing number of tech companies have supported the open-source movement to help democratise access to AI and spur innovation. Google, for example, opened up its machine learning framework, Tensorflow, in 2015. More recently, Facebook has made DeepFocus, its AI-based framework for virtual reality technologies, available to the public.

As the examples set by these tech giants suggest, open source is revolutionising the world of AI. By removing current barriers such as costly fees, complexity of integration and the skills shortage, AI providers are allowing more and more companies to see AI not as the exclusive domain of global corporations, but as something that even SMEs can approach.

To learn more about the future of AI in manufacturing, visit EU Automation’s Knowledge Hub at: www.euautomation.com/uk/knowledge-hub/artificial-intelligence

Neil Ballinger is head of EMEA at EU Automation
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Could remote working become the new normal? 20/11/2020

IN 2020 managers around the world had to quickly transition to working from home to maintain productivity during global disruption. Some businesses tried remote working for the first time and others extended their existing flexible working policies. So, what can we learn from this disruption and how can we apply it to our future working environment to make people as efficient as possible? Alex Darby explores how businesses can embrace a new era of working

Communication is key in business, so when the recent pandemic resulted in more people working from home, businesses had to find a way to stay connected. Video conferencing platforms seemed most popular – Zoom, for example, saw daily traffic increase by 535% and reported 200 million meeting participants daily in March 2020.

Remote working in the long term, however, takes more than choosing a good video conferencing platform. Businesses must consider how their team can effectively and securely access content from multiple environments. Every business will have a different set up, for example employees might use corporate laptops or personal devices. Employers should consider the best environment for their team. For example, should they host a server that employees access using a VPN, store data using a cloud-based environment and access content on shared platforms such as Google Drive or Microsoft Teams?

Will offices become obsolete?

As more businesses embrace remote working and less people are in the office at any one time, employers may reduce available workstations and office space. However, businesses should not remove private workspaces all together. Remote working can improve productivity, but employers should also be aware of the importance of a group workspace.

Embracing company culture and developing relationships can be difficult to do digitally. Businesses should consider how they can adapt the workspace to maintain these important relationships and encourage communication, collaboration and engagement. Larger meeting spaces, for example, can provide space for company meetings, training sessions and events where the whole team can gather.

Could it work for the factory?

Some tasks, particularly in manufacturing, require workers to complete physical tasks using machinery that cannot leave the facility. The need for human workers also means that the industry is less prepared than others to embrace flexible working.

Workplace performance specialist Leesman published a survey of more than 700,000 employees worldwide about their experience working from home. Of the 52,240 surveyed from the manufacturing and engineering sectors, 53 per cent had no experience in working from home. In comparison, 52 per cent of people in other businesses had regularly worked from home or at least had some remote working experience. So, can the manufacturing industry embrace this new way of working?

Flexible technology

While a factory worker cannot complete all their tasks over a video conference service, facilities managers can invest in technology to increase flexibility. Virtual reality (VR), for example, allows teams across different areas of the business, or even different geographies, to collaborate. Manufacturers could use VR to host meetings, train new employees using a virtual machine and tools or allow multiple teams to collaborate on a project from different locations.

Manufacturers could use VR to host meetings, train new employees using a virtual machine and tools or allow multiple teams to collaborate

Wearable devices can also improve collaboration between factory workers and management staff who could work from home. For example, employers can access data from devices worn by factory staff to visualise operations from their homes and ensure that staff are productive and safe. Factory employees can also use wearables and augmented reality (AR) to immediately access real time data or information that can help them complete tasks, such as machine maintenance, accurately and quickly.

The future workplace won’t be the same for everyone — some roles still require people in factories or other facilities. However, we believe that all businesses can learn from the few months that the entire world was operating from home. Improving flexibility could be the answer to improving productivity.

Alex Darby is head of people at EU Automation

www.euautomation.com/uk/

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The future looks green 08/06/2020

Manufacturers should consider how making small, impactful changes in their facility can actually make a difference in the environment. In this article Neil Ballinger, head of EMEA sales at industrial automation parts supplier EU Automation, explains how we can create the green factories of the future

Demand for resources is growing. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) the world is currently on track to consume four Earths’ worth of resources by 2050. Governments across the world have warned that everyone, from homeowners to large, global manufacturers must consider how they can reduce demand for resources such as energy and raw materials to cut carbon emissions and safeguard the planet. 

Manufacturers must do more to reduce their contribution to increasing environmental issues. Introducing more sustainable processes can benefit the facility as much as the planet, as they will be able to improve efficiency and reduce costs. Some facilities might believe that this change requires an overhaul of infrastructure to swap to renewable energy sources, replace machinery and more. This approach could be time-consuming, expensive and wasteful. Instead, businesses should take the time to review their current processes and understand what short- and long-term changes they can make to produce goods using less materials, less energy and more ethical approaches.

Make it circular

Most facilities currently work following a linear model of make, use and dispose that creates a lot of waste because the product will only have one life and left-over energy or material will be wasted.

Manufacturers should consider how they can design waste out of the production process

The circular model differs and encourages manufacturers to keep resources in use for as long as possible. Manufacturers should consider how they can design waste out of the production process, the goods manufactured and the everyday running of the facility.

For example, powering large facilities requires huge amounts of energy and water that can be very costly. Some of this energy will also be wasted during production. Manufacturers can look at redirecting this energy, such as wastewater, to help power the facility. Facilities that have high levels of automation can also consider reducing the lighting or heating in the facility in areas where there are no human workers to save energy.

Machinery

Sophisticated assembly lines require automation and equipment that will use a lot of energy and must be regularly maintained to run efficiently. If any of the equipment breaks down, manufacturers must make quick decisions to return to production to avoid any financial losses due to downtime.

When a machine breaks down, manufacturers can choose to repair or replace it. To extend the lifetime of the machine, reduce costs and reduce environmental impact, manufacturers should consider repairing the machine. Industrial automation parts suppliers can source the broken part if it is new, reconditioned or obsolete and deliver it to the facility quickly so it can return to production.

Investing in new technology to the system can also ensure that the facility runs as efficiently as possible. Manufacturers can retrofit smart sensors, for example, to their current system and the entire facility to gather real-time information about machine performance, energy usage and more. Analysing this data allows manufacturers to identify and optimise inefficient areas of production, reducing energy consumption and optimising productivity.

Are you sure you want to print that?

Manufacturers are introducing more automation to their assembly lines to improve productivity and efficiency. However, some manufacturers do not realise the full potential of connected devices.

By transferring internal protocols from paper to digital, mobile devices facility workers can reduce their reliance on paper, in turn reducing their carbon emissions. Going paperless can also improve logistics of everyday activity. The ability to access real-time information about inventory, orders and administration from anywhere on or off site gives manufacturers the visibility they need to improve productivity.  

Manufacturers cannot ignore the importance of reducing carbon emissions in production facilities. Investing in renewable energy and sustainable materials is important but not the only way to improve sustainability. By improving visibility of data and operations, extending equipment lifecycles and following a circular model, manufacturers can improve productivity without negatively impacting the environment.

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Know your robots 11/05/2020

There is rarely, if ever, a one-size-fits-all approach to manufacturing. It is important that site managers know what considerations to make when choosing an industrial robot to automate their processes. Here Jonathan Wilkins discusses what manufacturers should consider when choosing what type of robot to invest in

Industrial robots have long been used to replace human workers in performing tasks that are dangerous, dirty or repetitive. These robots are often large and bulky, caged machines used to do the heavy lifting in applications such as packaging and palletising. Multiple industrial robots can be integrated for a fully automated production line, but it is important that site managers choose the right robot for the job.

Three types

There are three types of industrial robot that are commonly used to automated manufacturing processes. The first of these is the six-axis robot that has traditionally been a popular choice for manufacturers. They operate using six-axis of motion, sometimes called the six degrees of freedom, and are ideal for applications that require complex motions. Crucially, programming of these machines is easy, so operators don’t need to have advanced programming skills to use them. These robots can make use of AI software and machine learning to pick up processes and improve on them – self-coding their programmes when necessary.

Next, is the Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA) family of robots that are very popular in small robotic assembly applications. SCARA robots have a solidly mounted base in a fixed position and the arm is rigid in the z-axis, offering rotational motion in the xy-axis.

Finally, there are collaborative robots, otherwise known as cobots, that have been designed to work safely alongside humans in a shared workspace. These robots, with their increased flexibility and dexterity, can complete more delicate tasks that conventional robots cannot, such as polishing fragile materials in the production process. Demand for this technology is on the rise, with the global cobot market expected to reach $9 billion by 2025.

Which to choose

Manufacturers need to consider the production speed and volume that they are looking to achieve when deciding what type of robot to adopt in their facility. Manufacturers in sectors such as bottling or packaging, that need a much higher production speed or volume, can benefit from purchasing conventional robots like the six-axis robot. The logic is simple. Fewer human operators means there is less chance to slow the system down and production will increase. Multiple industrial robots can be integrated for a fully automated production line.

Manufacturers need to consider the production speed and volume that they are looking to achieve when deciding what type of robot to adopt


Because of their flexibility, and relative ease of use compared to fully automatic robotic systems, cobots are generally considered to be an affordable and attractive choice for small and medium sized businesses. These manufacturers can benefit from the traditional value proposition of robots — namely that they can carry out repetitive or unsafe tasks, freeing up human workers to add value — but at a much lower cost of entry.

Jonathan Wilkins is director of industrial parts supplier EU Automation. For more information visit http://www.euautomation.com

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Exoskeletons will transform manufacturing 27/03/2020

A Paris-based start-up recently helped a woman with partial paralysis to use an exoskeleton to walk. Breakthroughs like this are allowing exoskeleton technology to be used in more varied environments, with potential benefits for manufacturers. Neil Ballinger, head of EMEA sales at industrial automation parts supplier EU Automation, explains how exoskeletons will transform manufacturing.

It is common for manufacturers to use robots to carry out repetitive tasks, often in hostile environments. But what if these environments are also hostile to robots? Also, how do you protect an ageing workforce from the heavy physical workload, repetitive movements and non-ergonomic postures which undermine productivity? Exoskeletal technology now has an answer for this.

Consisting of a metal frame fitted with motorised muscles to the outside of your body, a wearable robot, more commonly known as an exoskeleton, can multiply its user’s strength and enable workers to carry out a variety of industrial tasks. Applications range from muscle support for rehabilitation to industrial suits, which allow you to lift heavy weights with next to no effort.

A tailored suit

The global exoskeleton market size was valued at $25.4 million in 2015 and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 58.4 per cent between 2018-2025. Apart from the obvious medical and healthcare use, demand is being driven for exoskeletons in military and industrial use too.

The prevalence of different types of stationary and mobile exoskeletons, driven by pneumatic, hydraulic and electric actuation, and powered by fuel cells, batteries, or mains power, makes it vital that manufacturers know what’s best for them. To meet the demanding needs of industrial applications, plant managers should choose exoskeletons that are lightweight, comfortable, safe as well as minimally invasive to the surrounding environment.

Plenty of options are available to manufacturers. For instance, many companies are now developing single-joint wearable robotics rather than full body powered suits which tend to be heavier and more obstructive. Upper extremity exoskeletons, such as Ottobock’s Paexo, provide support to the upper body, arms and shoulders. Meanwhile, lower extremity models provide support to the legs, hips and lower torso which is useful if tasks require heavy lifting, as shown by the rehabilitation system developed by ReWalk.

Helping your workforce

In many ways, exoskeletons are collaborative robots in their truest form. Robots and humans are not just working side-by-side, they are working as one.  Not only will this make manufacturers more productive, it will result in fewer injuries, less soreness and less exhaustion.

As well as this, plant workers will benefit from the improved skillset that will come from using an exoskeleton to complete their tasks. Since wearable robotics enable and support workers to do tasks that are otherwise dangerous for a single employee to do, such as lifting extremely heavy machinery, they can complete tasks with more confidence. If exoskeletons can help people walk again then they will certainly offer great benefits to manufacturers looking to optimise the efficiency and capability of their workforce.

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How to improve efficiency in small batch manufacturing 08/03/2020

As we value more bespoke products in both commercial and industrial settings, how can manufacturers ensure they meet demand without compromising on efficiency, cost or quality? Jonathan Wilkins, director at industrial automation parts supplier EU Automation, explores how automation can help manufacturers improve mass customisation.

The consumer market is becoming a lot more personal; we buy customised products, book bespoke holidays and even see personalised adverts on our social media feeds. According to research by Deloitte, we are also willing to make some sacrifices for personalised products. 48 per cent of surveyed people were willing to wait longer for their product to arrive and 20 per cent of people were willing to pay more for it.

Increasing flexibility

Finding a cost-efficient and productive way to change the production line for smaller scale and flexible production is one of the main barriers to mass customisation. A production line with large, caged industrial robots will be difficult to reprogram and manoeuvre to manufacture a new product and will be very expensive if that product is personalised.

Manufacturers may struggle to find a cost-efficient and productive way to offer these products using their current systems. Swapping production lines to start a new batch is time consuming when using larger, industrial machines. Manufacturers will also find that it is not cost-efficient to make all of these changes to create a very small batch of a product.

Moving from an assembly line built for mass production to one for mass customisation can be difficult but there are advantages. Manufacturers that embrace mass customisation find that they can reduce their spare product inventory because they can virtually guarantee that everything they manufacture has been specifically asked for by the consumer.

Automation

Manufacturers do not have to completely replace the production line with new technology to support customisation. Instead they can introduce the technologies that will best improve their processes to the existing line.

Adopting advanced technologies is one of the best ways to move from mass production to mass customisation. Technologies such as modular robots, plug and play technology and easily programmable automation can easily be added to the production line to work in any configuration needed to deliver the final product.

An inflexible transport system is one of the main barriers to improving mass customisation in a factory. Transport systems are normally built for scalability but manufacturers must now invest in a system that can easily adapt to build products with multiple designs and specifications.

Industrial automation manufacturers know the importance of flexibility and now offer technologies that help manufacturers improve personalisation. B&R Automation’s ACOPOStrak has a range of track modules so that the production line can adapt to changes quickly and efficiently, giving the manufacturer complete design freedom to create a unique transport system for their facility. The independently controlled shuttles can be changed over in seconds, reducing the risk of downtime.

Software

Operating and managing individual processes, materials and movement of parts can be one of the main challenges of small batch manufacturing. Manufacturers should prioritise managing these areas efficiently to ensure there is no compromise on product quality.

Implementing a digital twin can help manufacturers to monitor batch manufacturing and ensure that every product is of a high quality. This twin is a digital version of the production line where manufacturers can test out scenarios in the factory without impacting production.

Manufacturers can use the digital twin to test out adapting the production line or manufacturing a new product. They can also test multiple scenarios to find the most cost-efficient and productive way to deliver a customised product to their target market.

It is not always clear how manufacturers can benefit from giving customers that personal touch because it can be costly, time-consuming and difficult to manage. However, with the correct hardware and software, businesses can efficiently manufacture the products that consumers want while still improving productivity.

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