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The manufacturing sector has historically survived disruption caused by recessions, supply shortages, and geopolitical turmoil by embracing innovation. But a setback has been suppliers being quick to meet automation needs. Traditional automation can be costly and rigid, taking months, even years, to design, develop, and deploy. Minor modifications can result in weeks of costly downtime.

Just as customers have had to adapt, so have their suppliers. Universal Robots (UR) vice-president of operations and supply chain Martin Kjærbo said the company has adapted rapidly by keeping its finger on the pulse. He said the company’s approach to the crisis will shape Universal Robots going forward.

“The Covid-19 outbreak has caused a major shakeup, no doubt about it,” he said.

“This is a time when the robustness of our supply chain is seriously challenged. Fortunately, we already had a dual-source supply chain in place, which meant that when China started shutting down, we weren’t as vulnerable and had options to get the same parts elsewhere.

Kjærbo said one of the most significant lessons of this time is learning the importance of dual-sourcing supply chains and staying in close contact with ever supplier.

Robotics to accelerate amid Covid-19

A recent article, Analytics Insight stated many companies are looking to robotics technologies to bolster health and security measures and tap into new opportunities to rescue their businesses.

Viewed as a niche product in the past, cobots are now the fastest-growing segment in the industrial robotics sector. By 2025, cobots are expected to jump from niche status to thoroughly mainstream, accounting for approximately 34 per cent of global robot spend.

Locally the changes are already taking place. Darrell Adams, head of Southeast Asia Oceania for Universal Robots said he expects to see an uptick in demand for cobots over the next few years.

“Easy to program and operate remotely, these affordable, flexible robots are designed to work in safe collaboration with humans and could be the answer to the social distancing measures that companies need to adhere to,” he said.

Adams said flexibility is an important driver in the global adoption of cobots. In times of uncertainty, they pave the way to business continuity, innovation, and the futureproofing of key processes.

“The reduced recruitment costs, consistent quality, enhanced productivity, affordability and flexibility of cobots in the automation space is particularly exciting right now,” he said.

“We have invested significantly in research and development over the years and have developed cobots to provide application assistance across almost every industry. Rather than stopping production in future and under extraordinary circumstances, customers can plan ahead and analyse their key processes to ensure ongoing productivity.”

Answering to urgent calls by the market, Universal Robots has launched application-focused hardware and software tools designed to further streamline the deployment process – from anywhere.

“These UR+ Application Kits cover an array of applications such as Material Handling and allow the customer to simplify their deployment process – from ordering and isolation picking applications to palletising and de-palletising,” Adams said.

Cobots are particularly suited to machine tending and dangerous and dull jobs such as CNC machine tending, and welding are only two of the areas where cobots are often deployed.

Cobots deliver in times of crisis

In a recent success story, RCM Industries, a manufacturer of die casting parts with four production plants, deployed UR cobots in two identical cells where they each tend to two dual-spindle CNC lathes in the same cycle.

A worker programming a washtank app for a UR cobot.
A worker programming a washtank app for a UR cobot.

The company’s director of sales and marketing, Mike Higgins, said the Chicago-based company planned for a “worst case scenario” to help weather the Covid-19 storm.

“Our four plants have been substantially impacted by the pandemic—our operations are down 50-80 per cent right now,” he said.

“Fortunately, several of the customers that we manufacture parts for are deemed ‘essential’ because they produce parts for the medical, military, and automotive industries.”

Higgins said deploying the cobots proved effective in terms of following social distancing guidelines, as only one roving inspector was needed to oversee the operation of the cells.

“In times like these, our automated cells have really been beneficial,” he said.

“The crew that we kept on staff had a broader skillset and were not familiar with the direct operation of the collaborative robots, but since the day-to-day operation of the cobots is fairly easy to learn, handle and monitor, this has not been an issue.”

Food & Drink Business

Fine Food Australia has cancelled its 2020 trade show due to the reintroduction of stage three COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria. The show was scheduled to take place from 7-10 September in Melbourne.

Freedom Foods Group has advised the ASX that its voluntary trading halt will remain in place until 30 October while it investigates its financial position.

Bega Cheese has announced the reduction and consolidation of its processed cheese production, with 74 jobs to go at its Bega facility by Christmas.