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A beginner’s guide to automation


Many Southeast Asian countries are focusing on advanced Industry 4.0 technologies to automate and revolutionize their industries, and with good reason. According to McKinsey & Company, these innovative technologies could help the region capture up to $627 billion in productivity gains by 2025.

While such countries as Singapore and Malaysia lead the way in automation adoption, the Philippines is still in its “planning phase.” According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), in 2016 the country registered a robot density of just three robots per 10,000 employees, which is well behind Singapore (488 robots), Thailand (45), and Malaysia (34). Ranked sixth out of eight Southeast Asian countries by the INSEAD Global Innovation Index 2018, it is clear that the Philippines has significant room for improvement in its Industry 4.0 preparedness.

Terms like “automation” and “Industry 4.0” are increasingly familiar buzzwords, but some Philippine businesses may not fully understand them and, as a result, are hesitant to adopt automation due to misconceptions ranging from costs to complexity. Those willing to take the first steps find that they do not know where to begin.

Getting started with automation

Manufacturers should start by setting clear business objectives for its automation solutions, such as reducing production downtime or decreasing material wastage. Next, look at automating processes that are simple, repetitive and do not require human dexterity. Furthermore, it is most ideal to target processes that require minimal changes to the production layout to help control investment costs.

Another crucial step is finding solutions that are easy to implement and allow flexibility to meet changing business and production demands.

One common solution is collaborative robots, or cobots, which are designed to work safely alongside workers. Lightweight and compact, cobots offer flexible redeployment across multiple functions and do not require costly overhauls of existing production layouts.

Untrained operators could program cobots, which feature intuitive 3D visualization technology, by moving the robotic arm to desired waypoints or by navigating an easy-to-use touchscreen tablet. The entire implementation process, from unpacking to programming a cobot’s first simple task, typically takes less than one hour. In contrast, programming traditional industrial robots could be a complex and lengthy process, even for those with professional expertise.

Make safety a priority

Safety should be the main concern in all manufacturing operations. Most traditional automation solutions require shielded work areas to keep employees from harm. While absolutely necessary, such barriers incur additional costs, take up space and reduce the flexibility of manufacturing processes.

Cobots, however, are designed with in-built safeguards, including power and force limitations, which allow them to work safely alongside workers without safety barriers, subject to risk assessment. Furthermore, cobots could be used to relieve workers of dangerous, strenuous and menial tasks, improving workers’ overall health and safety.

Better understanding ROI

In terms of investment, cobots have a competitive total cost of ownership (TCO) compared to traditional industrial robots. TCO includes direct and indirect costs, including maintenance, factory floor layout changes, employee training and safety barriers, all factors typically needed for traditional industrial robots. Cobots are less costly to set up, as well, which further makes them a financially attractive option for manufacturers turning to automation for the first time.

Companies typically use such metrics as payback period and return of investment (ROI) to evaluate potential business investments. The payback period is an assessment of the amount of time it takes for the investment — in this case, automation — to be repaid, but does not consider future gains beyond the break-even period. ROI, on the other hand, looks at the investment’s net profit percentage in relation to the involved costs, and it is typically calculated based on direct labour cost savings and short-term benefits.

Businesses should instead consider that cobots’ long-term financial benefits far outweigh the initial investment. These benefits could include material wastage reduction, increased production efficiency and even decreased employment-related expenses. This more holistic evaluation would help companies understand the wider, long-term financial benefits of automating with cobots.

Future-Ready Workforce

With some low- and medium-skilled professions at risk from automation, properly training the workforce to adapt to new automated work environments is crucial. Industry and policy decision makers, governments and education professionals all play a role in this important element of Industry 4.0.

Launched by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, the five-year National Technical Education and Skills Development Plan is one step in the right direction. Catered to Industry 4.0, it equips enrollees with the necessary skills to adapt to these technologies. Another program, Universal Robots Academy, offers free online learning modules and webinars that make core programming skills available to cobot users regardless of their robotics experience or background.

As the Philippines moves towards its next growth phase, accelerating the adoption of automation solutions is the key to more rapidly making its Industry 4.0 ambitions a reality.

James McKew, Regional Director – APAC, Universal Robots

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Today’s Front Page January 23, 2020

Today’s Front Page January 23, 2020