How robots can save Australian manufacturing

A new wave of cost-effective, lightweight robots has come onto market, and researchers warn that SMEs who don't invest in them may not survive.

The notion of robots in the workplace is often met with an anxiety typical of the post-industrial era: "robots will take our jobs".

The hyperbole isn't altogether irrational given that technology will inevitably cause displacement. Cost-effective machinery has already filled menial roles once undertaken by humans -- think Coles’ self-checkout, or the humble tram conductor now replaced with a hulking ticket machine that never seems to have the right change.

Against an uncertain economic backdrop -- especially in sectors like manufacturing, where uncompetitive wages and an inflated currency have left many firms floundering -- these anxieties take on extra weight. Even journalists, purveyors of language and thought, are not immune to robophobia.

But when technology that enables a company to increase productivity and reduce costs could mean the difference between a business’ survival or closing up shop, are robots still the workers' foe?

Introducing the ‘cobot’

Until now, industrial robots have tended to be restricted to larger firms. They have been big, unwieldy instruments, often separated from human staff due to safety requirements. They are expensive, power intensive, take months to install and require skilled engineers to program them.

But a new generation of cheaper, smaller, ‘lightweight’ models has now brought these efficiency gains within reach of smaller businesses.

A lightweight robotic arm from Sweden’s Universal Robots, only brought into the Australian market this year, will set you back about $70,000 to $80,000 (depending on implementation needs) -- 30 to 40 per cent cheaper than your run-of-the-mill industrial robot, according to Herbert Ho, director of operations and engineering at Australian distributor Sensorplex.

Lightweight robotics also delivers cost efficiencies around:

  • Shipping and installation: two weeks shipping and three to four weeks installation, compared to eight to 12 weeks shipping and three to four months installation for older generation industrial robots.
  • Space: A tidy footprint of one square metre.
  • Energy: Uses less power than a dishwasher.
  • Training: Easily operated and programmed by workers on the factory floor, rather than specialist engineers.
  • Safety: An accredited, inbuilt stop mechanism for when the robot hits a weighty object means less capital spent on lengthy safety procedures and fencing.

With a return on investment of around 12 months depending on business needs, according to Ho, it’s no wonder big names like Boeing and Visy have taken advantage of this technology.

But the real boon is for Australian SMEs. In addition to the mentioned cost efficiencies, the flexibility of lightweight robots means they are ideal for small batch manufacturers, who can easily move and reprogram the one robot for different production lines as required.

And because of their inbuilt safety mechanism, they can safely work alongside humans.

“They can all be friends,” says Ho. “The other four guys on the line, we can actually teach them to operate the robot. We can train our line workers to do that.”

Where to from here?

More than simply replacing humans to perform menial, repetitive tasks however, researchers at CSIRO are working towards the next phase of automation where ‘assistive robotics’ will enhance existing workers’ capabilities.

“We feel that the next industrial revolution in terms of robots is not taking humans out and putting robots in but to actually augment human work with robotic systems,” says CSIRO senior robotics researcher Alberto Elfes.

To illustrate, Elfes identifies retaining and passing down skilled knowledge between workers as being a big problem area for Australian businesses. To address this, CSIRO recently prototyped an assistive robot that uses sensors to transmit information about how a new worker is performing tasks back to an experienced worker in a remote location. The experienced worker can then assist in training the new worker.

As macroeconomic pressures decimate swathes of Australian manufacturing, businesses must find ways to cut costs and increase productivity. To this end, warns Elfes, it is “not optional” for companies to invest “significantly” in advanced automation.

“We cannot increase the productivity of our workers,” Elfes says. “It’s not a matter of putting more pressure on them, it’s an issue of getting more tools so that in the same amount of time -- maybe with less effort -- that’s where we want to go.

“We see these technologies as being the ones that can help businesses lower costs, increase productivity, retain work, train workers more quickly and therefore become more competitive.”

But he stresses that human workers must remain at the centre of the equation.

“The most sophisticated manufacturing system that exists on the planet is the human, and the level of smarts and dexterity and ability to adapt that the human has, we will have a very hard time replicating that in machines. But what we can do is put the human in the centre and augment them by giving them the support they need.”