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UK manufacturers think robots are only for large factories

20 March, 2014

A survey of UK manufacturers has revealed that many believe that robotic automation is not suitable for low-volume or bespoke production processes.

The survey of 221 companies of all sizes, conducted for ABB Robotics, found that more than 60% (134) are not currently using robots. When asked for their reasons, 27% said they operated low-volume or bespoke processes that they did not think were suitable for robots.

“The unfortunate flipside of the success of robotic automation in the automotive industry is that it has led to a popular belief that robots are only suitable for mass-production processes,” says Mike Wilson, general industry sales and marketing manager for ABB Robotics in the UK. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. Developments in robotic technology have made robots more flexible than ever, enabling them to be switched quickly between completely different products and processes.

“There is no reason why the same flexibility and agility which enables packaging producers to use the same robots to handle dozens of differently sized and shaped products cannot be readily applied to producing engineered products,” he adds. “While producing an engineered product may be a world away from handling a package, the underlying principle is the same – namely that a robot offers a highly flexible and efficient means of handling different processes and/or products, especially when compared to fixed-purpose machinery.”

Almost a third (65) of the manufacturers in the survey ruled out introducing a robot in the near future. When asked for their reasons, 21 cited cost of purchase and ownership, and 38 gave lack of experience as major reasons for shying away from investing in robotic automation.

“The survey reveals the need for more to be done to educate UK manufacturers both about the case for investing in robots and the help available in the market to enable them to get the most from their investment,” says Wilson. “Despite significant falls in the cost of robots and robot systems in recent years, there is a lingering misconception that robotic automation is prohibitively expensive for UK companies, particularly in the SME sector.

Industrial robots can help SMEs as well as large manufacturers, says ABB

“There is real evidence to show that an investment in a robot can often be recouped within just 12 to 18 months,” he points out. “This, coupled with the ready availability of training and support services from many UK robot suppliers and their partners, means that many companies in the UK could be missing out on the very real benefits of introducing robotic automation to their processes.”

The survey highlights a divide between those who have used and benefitted from robotic automation, and those who have yet to try it. Three quarters of the 87 respondents that are currently using robots say that the installations have cut their operating costs, while a similar proportion report increased production output rates. For 68% of the robot users, product quality and consistency (has improved.

“The survey results show that those companies that are seeing real benefits from their use of robotic automation are highly likely to make further investments in additional robots,” Wilson reports. “Of the 87 respondent companies currently using robots, 75% were either likely, or highly likely, to invest in additional robots in the next 18 months.”

•  ABB has recently launched an online calculator that estimates the potential payback times for investing in robotic automation. 

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