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Automation is still vital to manufacturing growth

Automation is still vital to manufacturing growth RA Rodriguez managing director Peter Williamson looks at how modular automation is driving a manufacturing revival in the UK.

Automation may not be new but it is now having a big impact in the UK. One of its first exponents was the Ford Motor Company that adopted the concept during the 1940s in its production processes. Since that time - and especially in the last 25 years - manufacturers across the western world have increasingly seen the value of automation in terms of productivity and quality assurance.

Whilst automation in countries such as Germany is the first consideration when setting up a new production facility, the UK has been far more reticent. That is until now. At long last UK manufacturers are investing significantly in automated production in order to compete more effectively.

One of the reasons for this sea change is what's new in automation. The introduction of simple, low cost, modular automation that is easy to specify, install and program has proved particularly attractive to SMEs. It allowed these manufacturers, inexperienced in automation, to gain confidence. And by investing in flexible manufacturing systems with fast set-up times, they have been able to accommodate product design changes swiftly and make a wider variety of products.

The result of this ongoing investment is evident: UK manufacturing is reported to be booming again. The latest Markit/CIPS purchasing managers' index (PMI) confirmed the sector is seeing its strongest growth in activity for two and half years. It marks the fifth consecutive month of expansion and is the highest reading since February 2011.

These findings are supported by the manufacturers' association, the EEF. It has upgraded its forecasts and expects continued expansion for this year with growth accelerating in 2014. This trend is certainly having an impact at RA Rodriguez. Whilst the company's roots are in the supply of engineering components, its scope today is much wider.  Its many decades of applications experience has allowed RA Rodriguez to develop into a supplier of bespoke automation systems, particularly those based on IEF Werner linear elements. And this has acted as a springboard for an even deeper involvement in automation.

Simple, affordable automation
With the addition of Universal Robots to its programme of automation products RA Rodriguez took the decision, in 2011, to create a new business division of the company, headed by Automation Sales Manager Andrew Mason. He confirms: "RA Rodriguez has a lot to offer companies that are adopting automation in order to be more cost competitive. Our product programme allows us to provide OEMs, systems integrators and manufacturers with standard products that can be flexibly combined to provide tailored solutions."

The Universal Robot itself is also proving to be an increasingly popular product from RA Rodriguez. It's a small, lightweight industrial robot arm that has six axes of movement and, above all, is exceptionally quick and easy to install. A specially developed graphical user interface means no expert programming is needed. Within a couple of hours it can be ready to run.

This technology can benefit virtually every UK manufacturer and really comes into its own where traditional robots are considered to be too large, too expensive, too noisy or not sufficiently flexible. It is the ideal entry level automation device which can be set up by anyone and operates from a standard 240V electrical supply.

On its own the Universal Robot is one of most economical and flexible pieces of automation on the market and it now also available as a turnkey package, complete with affordable robot vision. Working in conjunction with vision specialists, Image House, RA Rodriguez is able to supply this flexible robot arm as an intelligent automatic pick/place and quality assurance device. The off-the-shelf package comprises all the elements needed for the application - the robotic arm, appropriate gripper, smart cameras and software.

If the vision robot is for simple pick and place tasks, a standard camera is included. But for those applications where capturing image detail is important - bar code reading for example - a high resolution model can be specified.  The software system allows the easy integration of either camera package.

Also new is the IEF Werner rotaryARM. This is designed to work in combination with IEF Werner linear motion modules to create fast and cost effective automation systems with many advantages over traditional robots. The simple and compact design of this swivel arm can be complemented by an integrated turning axis for the gripper to create a space-saving solution. Unlike the earlier version whose movement was restricted to a single 360° turn before returning to the start position, the new rotaryARM design allows continuous rotation resulting in reduced cycle time.
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