Earth Day Reflection

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By James McKew

Earth Day, celebrated on April 22 each year, is an annual event to demonstrate the support for environmental protection at an individual and societal level. In the past, environmentally friendly practices were rarely associated with the manufacturing industry. However, this global day has initiated organisations to explore ways to improve their operations, allowing for increased productivity and efficiency while adopting sustainability. As the new generation of consumers becomes more environmentally conscious, sustainability has become a vital factor to the success of an organisation. 
With the rise of the term “sustainable manufacturing,” defined as the manufacturing of products using processes that minimise negative environmental impacts, manufacturers are introducing innovative solutions to their factory floors. 
Sustainable manufacturing has spread far beyond the niche groups of organizations that positioned themselves as environmentally friendly and encompass many notable firms from a wide range of industries. This is a goal sought by manufacturers that aim for a competitive advantage in the market while taking into account the negative impacts its operations have on the environment. Few people connect collaborative robots and sustainability but this global day has given manufacturers a chance to pause and reflect on the difference that cobots can make.

Reducing waste in manufacturing 

In the manufacturing process, turnaround time (time taken for a product to be produced) has to be fast, and defects and raw material wastage minimised to meet production targets consistently. Manufacturing defects and discarded raw materials are not only costly to companies, they become waste which impacts the environment. One of the most effective ways to reduce both cost and waste in this sector is to improve the quality of manufacturing processes. This is where collaborative robots, or cobots, can offer manufacturers a helping hand.
Cobots are built for repetitive actions. Cycle after cycle, the most efficient actions are repeated at the same pace, and with the same precision. This reduces wastage in industries such welding, dispensing and material removal, and minimises the number of defective products. Production output becomes more predictable as takt time (cycle time for a specific process) is stabilised, which allows for more efficient and optimised logistics arrangements. 
For example, Hyundai Induction Hardening Heat Treatment (HIHHT), a Korean company which provides an induction hardening heat treatment process, deployed two UR10 cobots in their process. These cobots place an untreated component into the treatment machine and then remove the treated component to a conveyer belt. As a result, HIHHT’s product failure rate decreased from 0.03 per cent to 0.01 per cent and production efficiency increased by 31 per cent.
While the impact on waste at each workshop or factory may seem insignificant in the context of the world’s challenges, on a global scale, the environmental impact could be considerable.

Reducing emissions from transportation 

Minimising distances in the supply chain reduces carbon emissions and is better for the environment. Coupled with the vulnerabilities of the global supply chain highlighted during the pandemic, more companies are re-examining their production processes, supply chain and business models to be more self-reliant, cost-efficient and environmentally friendly. There is an increasing interest in “reshoring”, as bringing production home is a way to achieve these goals. 
Robotic technology, such as cobots, has enabled manufacturers to move production processes closer to home and become more resilient in the process.

Space-saving

Manufacturing automation requires robots in the process, and traditionally this requires a significant amount of space allocated in the production facility for the robot and cages for safeguarding. Manufacturers today can deploy lightweight cobots that requires no safeguarding for some operations. Cobots can work alongside humans safely, and move between applications without costly facility redesigns. 

Reducing energy consumption 

Typically, cobots consume less energy compared to traditional robot counterparts. Manufacturers can minimise energy consumption in their cobot-powered applications by running the cabot at 70-80 per cent of its maximum speed and payload. 
With the digitalisation of the manufacturing processes, remote access tools are introduced to further aid manufacturers in achieving sustainability. For instance, the UR+ ecosystem offers a wide range of remote monitoring and access solutions to track and monitor cobots without having to be onsite. These tools enable manufacturers to program cobots remotely, reducing traveling costs and optimising energy consumption.
The demand for sustainable manufacturing will continue to rise as consumers begin making decisions based on companies’ efforts in demonstrating sustainability. Cobots’ ability to mitigate errors, reduce waste and increase efficiency can play a critical role in reducing carbon footprints. Moving forward, the number of companies leveraging the perfect human-machine collaboration to maintain the longevity of their businesses will rise.

About the author: James McKew (pictured above) is the Regional Director Asia-Pacific Universal Robots. This is an opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this publication.

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