How to get started with robotics and automation in manufacturing

Integrating robotics and automation into an existing manufacturing process requires a strategic approach. The deployment of any industrial robot application requires a unique end of arm tooling, specific reach and payloads, and flexibility. Today, most robots are flexible enough to be programmed quickly and easily, but certain tasks are challenging to automate, which adds high cost.

Take, for example, an auto plant in Europe that invested 10 million euros in automation to install windshields on cars on their assembly line, replacing the people who once did the job. The new machine was consistent, but it turned out that by replacing the people, they were actually adding cost to the process since maintaining such highly sophisticated technology required twice as many workers as the company had employed installing the windshields in the first place.

New adopters, therefore, need to think through their preparedness to systematically build robotics into the fabric of operations. Identifying how robotics automation will yield the most value involves more than identifying tasks well-suited to automation. When assessing the value proposition, adopters need to consider the net value and assess all costs (especially the hidden ones) to avoid surprises.

This post will explain some of the tips for manufacturers to jumpstart robotics and automation in manufacturing.

#Tip 1: Start small and grow slowly

Invest in automating one process to understand the complexities involved, learn how to properly use machinery, and observe potential productivity gains. Leasing or renting robotic machinery is a good option if you are unsure of your financial commitments. You can utilize the checklist below as a starting point in determining which processes are ideal candidates for manufacturing and back-office automation.

  • Does the process require access to multiple systems?
  • Is it prone to human error?
  • Can it be broken down into detailed rules?
  • Does it need limited human intervention once it’s begun?
  • Is it executed frequently, in large numbers?

# Tip 2: Connect with the right robotics service providers

Getting in touch with the right robotics service providers can take a lot of pressure from your shoulder since they can conduct an onsite visit and survey the factory/enterprise to better understand what robotics you need and how they can be implemented best on the floor. They can also evaluate your processes that may be dangerous, boring, or repetitive tasks for human operators, requiring excessive exertion or lifting and high-speed manual moves. Connect with multiple service providers before optioning a suitable one.

# Tip 3: Usher your employees along as automation supporters, not detractors

Manufacturers must introduce robotics and related task automation to keep employees worry-free and dedicated to their role and vision. This ensures that employees don’t feel as though they’re being replaced and that managers will retain those employees whose talents can be upskilled down the road. If employees do not buy into the positive aspects of the intended transformation, you’re in for a bumpy ride that could ultimately derail any potential growth or cost-savings.

# Tip 4: Planning around safety/workforce issues

Adopting robots can introduce a new layer of risk and liability considerations. For example, in the event of accidents connected to robotics systems (e.g., caused by malfunctioning hardware, software, communications, or misuse by a human, or even natural disaster), it is important to ascertain which party is responsible and liable. Additionally, new adopters of robots need to be well-versed in relevant safety standards. Another workforce consideration is data privacy. Companies are under increasing scrutiny to protect personal data captured by robotics systems (such as cameras, microphones, and sensors).

# Tip 5: Cyber-proof for today and tomorrow

Whether you are integrating robots in-house, with a service provider, or leasing the technology, it’s important to understand the inherent risks—both malicious and unintentional—that it carries. An idle robot, of course, could result in stalled or aborted production and other business disruptions. If a fleet of robots on the same network also shares the same configuration, an attack on one robot could become an attack on all. All other IoT-connected technology (computers, smartphones, etc.) could also be compromised. The entries of attack are many and varied and, unfortunately, rise in number as the world becomes more and more digitally connected.

Some vulnerabilities cyberattack targets include remote control apps, operating systems, connection ports, malware installation in firmware, hacked autonomous robots, microphones, and cameras. There are several fronts on which companies (and robot makers) can cyber proof robots. Yet, the overarching lines of defense include constant software security from the outset (and updated through the life of the robot), encryption of communication and software updates, and verification that technology vendors up and down the supply-chain follow strict cybersecurity protocols.