By Shih Pin Tan
Boasting a fleet of over 10,000 aircraft, taking a commercial flight in Asia might not be as novel as before. In generations prior, it was not as easy to manufacture these machines, with the average commercial jet airliner comprising of over 350,000 individual parts. In crafting these parts—whether metal or plastic, one process is essential: machine tending.
A well-functioning manufacturing workflow relies on machinery consistently being loaded and unloaded with parts or materials. When done well, machine tending increases productivity and yields – driving down the cost of production over time. Without it, production would grind to a halt. As the sector looks forward into the future, advancements in manufacturing will rest on optimising this crucial task.
The next industrial revolution
Stemming from the early 2010s, Industry 4.0 saw manufacturers integrating new technologies into their production facilities and throughout their operations. Industry 5.0 builds on this, using R&D to transition to a more sustainable, human-centric and resilient industry. With that, collaborative automation has a vital role to play.
Already integral to Industry 4.0, greater automation of machine tending – more specifically collaborative robotics – will help manufacturers transition to Industry 5.0. In fact, the European Commission sees Industry 5.0 as playing a vital role in providing solutions to challenges for society, including the preservation of resources and climate change.
The future of manufacturing and the transition to Industry 5.0 rests on ensuring machine tending benefits from both human skill and automated consistency, something collaborative robots (cobots) are specifically designed for.
The man-machine partnership
Over decades, human machine operators have been slogging away at the repetitive and physically demanding task of machine tending. This poses a multitude of issues for both workers as well as manufacturers and must be addressed.
For one, machine tending is unsafe for workers, posing high risk of injury while on the job. Machine tending tasks are often performed within small working spaces, involving aggressive cutting fluids and sharp edges, which provides the perfect recipe for worker accidents. In addition, these tasks are performed for hours on end with little natural light that takes a mental strain.
Due to these less than favourable conditions, fewer people are drawn in to do this type of work—resulting in manpower constraints and issues in recruiting workers to fill these voids. This process is also not scalable with the constraints of manual labour.
In line with industry 5.0, using collaborative robots (cobots) for machine tending applications can help to solve these issues. Cobots can be programmed to reduce contact in a defined space, enabling them to work seamlessly alongside humans. New generation cobots can effectively perform the extremely precise work required in machine tending. Offering up to six-seven degrees of movement cobots have the “human touch” while working alongside workers. Cobots not only help to ease the pressure caused by current skills gaps but create a more attractive workplace leading to higher retention of current workers.
For example, Vinacomin Motor Industry Joint Stock Company in Vietnam was struggling with low productivity and inconsistent quality from heavy reliance on manual machine tending. Through the deployment of two UR10 cobots, the company has seen productivity increase two to three times and consistent product quality. This has led to a 50-60 percent rise in orders and subsequently to an increase in workers’ income.
Strides are also being made with AI inside the machines. By analysing data from sensors and other sources, plant operators can identify patterns and trends to help improve efficiency and reduce downtime.
The automation of machine tending is already enabling real-time monitoring and analysis for manufacturers, as well as predictive maintenance and remote operation, improving overall efficiency, productivity, and profitability.
Wholesale improvements with technology
Though human cognition and analytical capabilities remain irreplaceable, collaborative automation can help manufacturers to meet increasing demands. Demands such as greater mass personalisation and hyper-customisation can be met, with automation in machine tending allowing greater flexibility for more adaptable production in a parametric and generative design.
By having cobots taking over tedious machine tending tasks, workers are freed to do more valuable and rewarding aspects of the job. At the same time, there will be the possibility of longer machine tending shifts due to automation, as minimal human supervision is needed. This can translate to growth within 24/7 factories, as manufacturers obtain a consistent source of output with factory downtime being practically wiped out. For regions battling low growth and productivity the notion of non-stop factories is an attractive one.
The future of industry lies in increased cooperation between humans and machines. By implementing this strategy in machine tending, businesses can create a manufacturing sector that is both sustainable and resilient. This not only enhances the working conditions for factory employees by allowing them to concentrate on more valuable tasks, but also enables companies to optimise their operations and increase production.
Collaborative automation is essential for the shift towards Industry 5.0, as it has the potential to revolutionise machine tending. Without embracing this technology, many manufacturing companies run the risk of falling behind.
About the author: Shih Pin Tan, Head of Sales Channel 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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