Guide: How to Get Started With Robots (3)

Søren Peter Johansen

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Guide: How to Get Started With Robots (3)

The Danish Technological Institute (DTI) has, through their work and contacts with large numbers of production companies, identified three main factors that come between companies and the potential gains from automation. The three factors are: Lack of time, lack of skill and lack of technology.

Therefore DTI is focusing on how to overcome these obstacles and increase your company's productivity and thereby secure your future existence in a globally competitive market place. The first article in the series shared tips to overcoming a lack of time. Article number two gave advice to conquer a lack of skills. Now we have reached the third and last hurdle.

OBSTACLE #3: LACK OF TECHNOLOGY
"We cannot buy the technology that we need," say some manufacturing companies. We have compiled a handful of tips below to help companies that might face this challenge.

1. Seek knowledge and inspiration
Robot technology is moving at lightning speed in these days, when the technology - which previously was restricted economically to large and complex systems - is falling dramatically in price. In addition, many new products are appearing on the market that make the impossible possible. We often find that many companies leave us with "a-ha" moments and renewed courage for automation. So it is conceivable that there is actually technology that fits your specific production - you are just not aware that it exists.

So before you reject an automation project for this reason, put a little time aside to study the market thoroughly. Here one can usefully draw on experienced partners, suppliers or the like. You cannot get 15 years' experience in robotic technologies in a week. There are people who have spent 15 years on obtaining this experience, so use them.

It is also highly recommended to prioritize time for inspirational visits to other manufacturing companies, where there is scope to enter into dialogue with the companies and ask critical questions - hear both the pros and cons of various methods and Technologies.

Your company does not have all the knowledge itself - by participating in networking, conferences or open houses you expand your experience and assumptions considerably.

2. Optimize the process first (the whole value chain)
Maybe you cannot find the technology to automate a specific process, but it may be that the process itself needs optimization. One can, for example, redesign products so that they are not screwed together but clicked together, which is easier to automate.

So check your processes closely before investing in automation. Bring for example Lean into play - and consider the wider picture. If your supplier takes an item and place it in a box, then you have to pick it up again to put a component on. That component may come from another subcontractor. Maybe it could be smarter if you send the components down to your supplier, and they put it on when they anyway have the product in hand. Then you will not have to pick it up. But it requires that you "Lean" and automate across multiple companies or multiple workflows.

Looking at the example of IKEA, they have just done that, they've looked right out to the customer. "Why do we collect things? The customers can do that," they say - and they can therefore provide cheaper products, while creating greater ownership by customers, who assemble their furniture themselves.

After a process optimization your production has become more suitable for automation. The worst thing you can do is to automate processes that turn out to be superfluous.

3. Search for funding
If your automation plan reaches innovative new heights, you can apply for development funds. Funds are awarded regularly from various sources, for example EU Horizon 2020, and similar national sources. One may also consider whether to share development costs with other companies having the same challenges.

4. Take one step at a time
Do not take too big a technological leap at once. If you have purely manual production, do not try to fully automate the entire production in one go. This can be damaging. Start instead with some sub-processes, and then join these together further down the road.

Likewise, if you are looking to automate processes where there may be technological uncertainty involved, break the process into several chunks with lower risk. Feasibility studies may help to clarify whether a chosen technology can solve the problem and thus can reduce the risk of the full-scale automation project. The feasibility study also helps to give both parties a more accurate assessment of the cost of a task. Often, the technology developed in a pilot project also partially re-used for the later full automation project.