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Flexibility is the key for automation giant ABB

Written by

Neil Martin

ABB is one of the giants of the automation sector and Ian Schofield, Account Manager at ABB Robotics, tells Neil Martin, Head of Content at Bot-Hive, how they stay ahead in a fast-moving and competitive marketplace.

For any large company operating within a particular sector, it’s essential that they remain at the forefront of developments and continue to be meaningful for their customers. So I asked Ian first, how does ABB stay ahead?

“ABB Robotics provides everything from individual robots for small to medium sized businesses through to complete cells and turnkey solutions for large, complex industrial projects. We help our customers to grow through flexible, efficient manufacturing whilst making work more meaningful and addressing key challenges such as labour shortages and safety. 

“In the UK we focus on educating UK manufacturers about the benefits of robotic automation. Recognising that the UK has a way to go before catching up with other leading automation nations such as Germany, United States and Korea, we are keen to help SMEs and larger manufacturers alike to begin their journey towards smarter production.”

New decade

We are on the cusp of a new decade, so where does Ian see ABB in 2029?

“The factory of the future includes robot technology. Today, robotic automation has already enabled an increase in productivity and efficiency for UK SMEs and larger manufacturers. In warehouses and distribution centres, robots are being used to deliver goods in a timely and responsive way to satisfy the demands of online consumers. 

“It’s difficult to predict what the future holds for ABB, but the upwards trend has been creating flexible, fast technologies to meet shifting digital markets. In order to keep up momentum, ABB is investing in research and development across automation technologies so that companies large and small can deliver greater efficiency and adaptability in the future. 

“Our most recent project, Hospital of the Future, landed earlier this month in Texas with our first installation of advanced collaborative robotics for use in medical laboratories and hospitals. This has been done in the hope that robots can perform the repeatable tasks, freeing up highly skilled experts to treat a growing number of patients.”

Tough going

Ian mentioned SMEs earlier, but as we know, encouraging UK SMEs to automate is tough going. How does he think the breakthrough can be achieved?

“Through other UK SMEs leading the way. Like any broad change in industry, it takes the initiative of one person or one company to demonstrate a new approach. When the engineer takes the first step to learn about the benefits of robotic education, this leads to a greater understanding of the solutions available. It feels like a big leap, yet the rewards are worth the investment. 

“This has been demonstrated time and time again by UK SMEs. Examples include Wade Ceramics, a ceramics flagon manufacturer based in Stoke which produces up to 80,000 flagons a week, refillable and non-refillable, fish-shaped, dog-shaped and even mermaid-shaped. After introducing robotic automation, the quality of the product improved as well as the speed of production. 

Reluctance

But, what does he think is the main reason for the reluctance of UK SMEs to automate?

“Much of the resistance to change appears to come from the belief that robots are expensive when in fact the cost of robots has gone down significantly – McKinsey & Company released a report in 2017 which revealed that the price of robots has decreased by half. Other reasons for resistance include an unwillingness to change production processes. In The Engineer’s poll last month, the question asked was ‘What is the most important reason for the UK industry’s slow adoption of robots?’ 56 percent cited an unwillingness to invest and 27 percent of respondents pointed to an unwillingness to change production processes.”

Cobot

One question which crops up in many discussions, is whether the term collaborative robot is helpful. Many SMEs struggle with the term robot, so does cobot (a mash between robot and collaborative), get in the way?

Ian explained his view: 

“Cobots is a helpful term because the ‘co’ refers to the collaborative quality of the robots. Cobots are very different to robots in the traditional sense. Industrial robots are designed to perform tasks which are dull, dangerous or dirty and are often kept behind fencing to keep staff at a safe distance. 

“Collaborative robots on the other hand can work safely alongside staff and can be programmed by essentially training the robot to move its arms. These advances in technology are removing barriers to entry for SMEs such as a lack of space and inhouse expertise.

“In answer to your question, we think it's important to differentiate between the two types of robots so that businesses don’t have any false ideas that all robots are capable of being collaborative, because they’re not.”

Final question for Ian, would he name his favourite robot:

“Collaborative robot YuMi is my favourite. YuMi is a precise collaborative robot for small parts assembly with state-of-the-art motion control. There are currently two members of the YuMi family: the original dual-arm model and single arm YuMi. 

“Recently YuMi has been serving customers scoops of mint-choc chip, salted caramel and vanilla in an ice cream shop in Australia as well as working with centrifuges, test-tube handling and navigating autonomously among co-workers at the Texas Medical Centre. With so many possibilities opening up, we look forward to discovering what other applications that YuMi could work in.”

Let’s raise a hand to YuMi and hope it will be serving us some gelato too soon.

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It feels like a big leap, yet the rewards are worth the investment.

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Interview with Ian Schofield, ABB, at Bot-Talks 2019