While many experts cite 2022 as the year for economic recovery, James McKew, regional president for Universal Robots Asia-Pacific, argues that the economy can no longer sustain delayed supply chains and erratic business operations.

The knock-on effects of surging Covid-19 infections could see a national worker crisis unfolding, according to McKew, with the recently discovered Omicron variant responsible for some of the highest number of cases reported in a single day in Australia since the onset of the pandemic. 

Forced to either halt production or work in isolation, local manufacturers are subject to ongoing production and supply chain issues with key supermarkets, such as Coles and Woolworths, currently being affected.

“To this end, automation is the best solution,” says McKew.

“We have seen suppliers both big and small look to automation... Social distancing, isolation and a lack of hands-on-the-ground, have all led to a sharp uptake in automation – and more specifically, collaborative automation.

“There certainly is an appetite for automation locally. While in the past, many companies couldn’t compete against their Asian counterparts in terms of price, automation has become a solution to producing efficiently and competitively.” 

McKew notes several trends set to lead the way in collaborative automation in 2022 and beyond.

Collaborative automation to soar in 2022

Addressing issues around labour shortages and disruption to supply chain and production, McKew believes that collaborative robots (cobots) will surge in popularity in 2022.

James McKew, regional president for Universal Robots Asia-Pacific.
James McKew, regional president for Universal Robots Asia-Pacific.

Recent studies by Market Watch forecast the global cobot market to grow to US$36.5 billion by 2030, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 42 per cent during the forecast period from 2022 to 2030. 

“There is certainly an appetite for automation locally. We saw steady uptake in cobots in 2021 and reached an exciting milestone of selling our 50,000th cobot globally,” McKew says. 

“This year, we anticipate increased demand by both SMEs and large corporations to ensure that they can still meet rising demand by consumers. 

“Two key requirements by manufacturers is that of remote access and 24/7 operations, both of which can be met by cobots. Heightened demand for cobots drives our company to continuously redefine automation through innovation.” 

Multi-purpose cobots

McKew points to space saving and flexibility as two of the greatest benefits of cobots.

“Manufacturers looking to save on space and budget will benefit greatly from having cobots on the factory floor. They can be moved around and reprogrammed to accommodate a range of tasks,” explains McKew.

“Interestingly, there are still millions of automatable tasks that are currently being done by humans. 

“Allowing workers to move from dull, dirty and even dangerous jobs into roles that foster creativity and problem solving will go a long way to ensuring business continuity and happy employees.”

More collaboration

For McKew, 2022 will be defined by collaboration, stating that with Covid vaccination roll-outs in full swing around the world, the global economy is opening up and it’s time to collaborate.

“Developing strong partnerships and collaborating within your ecosystem is the strongest value proposition that a company can deliver in 2022,” McKew continues.

“Delivering value to customers is integral to a business’ success and in a competitive field such as ours, working in silos is not an option.”

Industry 5.0 has (officially) arrived

While experts argue that Industry 5.0 will be a vision rather than a reality in 2022, McKew says that the upward trajectory of cobots may indicate otherwise.

“We are officially ushering in a new era of Industry 5.0. While Industry 4.0 focused on smart, automated production setups and real-time communication, Industry 5.0 welcomes new robotic developments and most importantly, converging robots and highly skilled people,” says McKew.

“Industry 4.0 remained a buzzword for quite some time and the initial uptake was slow. However, in an increasingly connected world, largely fortified by the uncertainty around Covid lockdowns, the adoption of technologies has accelerated rapidly.” 

Talent retention and labour shortages

Even with all the technology advancements in the world, McKew believes that the need for human talent in a business cannot be denied.

He said that cobots are designed to empower change in the way which work is done, arguing that people should be “working with robots, not like robots”.

Dispelling the myth that robots will take away humans’ jobs, he says they will rather to allow humans to focus on meaningful tasks that provide job satisfaction and benefit the business’ bottom line.

“An ageing workforce and a change in career choices by younger generations has influenced the sectors as we know it,” McKew says. 

“People are questioning the kind of work that should be done by humans. They no longer want to perform dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. 

“We now have the opportunity to entice workers through automation. Employees are looking for opportunities to be creative and problem solve, and this can be done by working alongside cobots.

“In terms of labour shortages, cobots ticks all the boxes for companies looking to increase their output, but grappling with labour issues.” 

Quality as a differentiator

There has been a notable increase in collaborative automation competitors in recent years. 

“Heightened demand creates business opportunities. However, we strongly caution companies to do their homework before signing on a new supplier. However, we strongly caution companies to do their homework before signing on a new supplier,” McKew concludes. 

“The need for efficiency, collaboration and increased output can only be achieved through quality. This remains the key differentiator for any business in 2022.”

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