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28/09/2021 - 30/09/2021

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03/11/2021 - 04/11/2021

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Transforming your sustainability with robotic automation

Transforming your sustainability with robotic automation Sustainability has become something of a buzzword in modern manufacturing processes. Often requiring investment to bring about the changes needed, it presents something of a double-edged sword for companies seeking to enhance their reputation through sustainable practices whilst enhancing their competitiveness through reduced costs. With the potential to completely transform production processes, robotic automation is a good example of an investment that can yield improvements in both sustainability and cost performance that can greatly improve competitiveness. Nigel Platt, Sales and Marketing Manager for ABB's UK robotics business, explains how.

Few would argue that these are tough times for manufacturing and processing companies. As well as having to contend with the toughest set of economic conditions in living memory, there are the added pressures of spiralling energy prices, rising input prices and fragile consumer demand. Not only that, but today's companies are subject to increasingly stringent legislation governing everything from product quality through to minimising the environmental impact of their operations.

For many companies, the concept of sustainability is the latest addition to this list. The idea has been gathering momentum in recent years, as consumers have become more aware of the environmental issues associated with manufacturing processes and produced goods. Basically defined, it promotes the idea of shaping our activities so that we can enjoy the materials and resources, including water and energy, that we need both now and in the future.

Although it often requires associated changes and investment, acting sustainably can invariably have a positive impact on consumer demand that can lead to improved sales, making it a valuable differentiator and competitive tool.

As a means of reshaping production processes to become more efficient, reliable and less prone to problems caused by wastage and poor quality, modern robotic automation can deliver major benefits for companies that often see investment being recouped within just 18 months.

The following are some examples of how introducing robotic automation can help companies to improve their performance in some key areas associated with sustainable performance.

Energy represents the most vital resource for every manufacturing process. Yet with supply being steadily outstripped by demand, it is no longer a resource that can be taken for granted. The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation's (UNIDO) recent 'Industrial Development Report' points to the need for investment in energy efficient technologies at all levels in order for sustainable growth to be achieved.

To paraphrase UNIDO Director General Kandeh Yumkella, industrial energy efficiency is a key issue that needs to be tackled in order to ensure continued growth, employment and mitigation of climate change.

The knock-on effect of shrinking supplies is already being felt in rising energy prices in the UK. With energy prices having risen by well over 50% in the last 10 years, energy is now by far the most significant overhead for any company. It is therefore imperative to find ways to use it more efficiently.

With no requirement for minimum lighting or heating levels, robots offer a great opportunity to cut energy bills. Current estimates point to a potential saving of 8% for every 1°C reduction in heating levels, while savings of up to 20% can be achieved by turning off unnecessary lighting. Aside from their ability to work in unlit and unheated environments, robots also present massive opportunities to help save energy through longer-term productivity improvements, particularly in the area of reduced wastage, as I shall show below.

Closely linked to the inefficient use of energy is wastage. Every product that has to be reprocessed requires additional energy, materials and cost to make it.  Not only that, but there is the additional cost and environmental impact associated with disposing of the ruined product and / or any associated waste. As a means of producing and handling hundreds of products quickly, repetitively and accurately, robotic automation has been proven to virtually eliminate product wastage.

As such, reduced wastage can make a major contribution to more sustainable production practices, by enabling products to be produced correctly first time, optimising the use of materials, and reducing the amount of energy, with less capital spent.

One of the biggest areas that companies need to address to improve their sustainability performance is product and process innovation.

In essence, this focuses on the need for companies to find new ways to remodel their production processes and find ways to reduce the environmental impact of their product offerings, both during production and after, at the disposal stage.

Robotic automation can help in both these areas. For one, robots offer a very high level of flexibility as they can be programmed to handle a large number of product variations and sizes.

With the availability of simulation and offline programming software suites, programming the production line in advance can increase overall productivity and enable shorter change-overs between products. The ability to produce a greater range of products without causing considerable downtime can not only increase profitability but enable tasks such as training, programming and optimising plant processes to take place without disturbing production.

A real life example of how flexible robots can be in production is the Youngman Group. The manufacturer of micro powered access, Ecolite lighting towers, ladders, steps and mobile access towers introduced two of ABB's IRB 1600 robots to dramatically improve flexible production and reduce stockholding. The answer was to install two fully, automated welding cells. The welding cells were programmed to operate around the clock, six days and a week. The labour-saving benefits, improved flexibility and safety aspects of the new system are impressive in their own right, but the proven capabilities of the system ensures products can be quickly and perfectly handled with a high level of precision and consistency.

For many manufacturing processes, robot-based automation offers improved flexibility, productivity and reliability, helping manufacturers to meet ever shorter product life-cycles, multiple product variants and rising energy and material costs. As demonstrated, the tangible benefits of robotic solutions have become ever more apparent and it is widely accepted that robots will be adopted at a much higher rate across the manufacturing industries where long term sustainability and reputation are paramount.

The challenge for manufacturers now is to reassess their strategy to identify the opportunities and exploit the sustainable and environmental advantages of integrating robot-based automation into modern manufacturing processes. With the potential to completely transform production processes and introduce sustainable production, there is no longer a reason to avoid an investment that is widely proven to also greatly improve your competitiveness.

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