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The long road to automation – are we nearly there yet?

The automotive sector aside, UK manufacturers have been more cautious, some may say sluggish, about taking the step into automation, especially in comparison to our European counterparts. Take German manufacturers; in 2010 they had 127 installed robots per 10,000 people, compared to 25 per 10,000 in UK industry.  Prompting us to question why the hesitation, and are we now, albeit slowly, catching up?

According to recent sales figures published by the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA)* it appears that the UK is turning a corner.  Notably, food is where the biggest surge in automation investment is coming from, with a 60% increase in robot uptake compared to 2000. Being at the forefront of these robotic installations, Pacepacker Services believes this signals an increased confidence about the role robots play in boosting productivity, quality and production line efficiency and driving down costs.

Several initiatives in recent years have helped to tackle the biggest barrier – ‘fear of the unknown’. The British government initiated the Automating Manufacturing Programme in 2011, putting up £600,000. Over 18-months, BARA, which ran the programme, engaged the interest of 366 UK companies. Approximately 40% of them came from the food sector. A series of Automation Roadshows in 2010 helped to highlight the benefits of automation, with case studies showcasing how other manufacturers approached their installation.

Thrifty by nature, cost could also explain manufacturer’s foot-dragging. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), UK firms have historically played the cost card, expressing worries that automated systems have a long ROI.  Much of this is down to how British companies view capital spends on automation equipment. Compared to European competitors, UK firms expect payback in 12 to 24 months, a far shorter period than foreign firms. Fanuc have addressed the perception that paybacks are lengthy through their robot redevelopment programme, which has resulted in a 20% reduction in parts on the latest palletising and pick and place models. Fewer moving parts not only results in a more robust system, but has led to a fall in prices, enabling manufacturers to receive a more desirable payback, often within 12 months.

Payback is understandably a particular concern for low-volume or seasonal packers. If you’re a potato farmer or fruit packer, equipment is typically used extensively for shorter bursts, often between three and six months each year. Making it tougher to justify forking out for a new pick and place system, that’s effectively superfluous to requirements for half the year.

Up-cycling robots provides the answer

Responding to the demands of budget conscious and seasonal manufacturers, packing system specialist Pacepacker Services launched their economical Blu-Robot range.  At half the cost of a new robot, this series of second-user palletising and pick and place systems offers a much faster ROI.

Intentionally designed to make automation accessible to all, Blu-Robots provide manufacturers with an innovative, cost effective operating practice.   Paul Wilkinson, Business Development Manager at Pacepacker explains the concept: “The Blu-Robot incorporates a reconditioned high quality FANUC robotic arm, which has been made ‘redundant ’just 35% through their expected 100,000 lifespan within the automotive industry.  The installation of a Blu-Robot palletiser within QV Foods, a food manufacturer producing and packing seasonal fresh vegetables, has allowed for greater efficiency on a packing line, while eliminating health and safety risks of manual labourers palletising 2.5kg bags of vegetables.”

One Pacepacker customer – Preva Produce, a premium UK potato grower – took the leap into automation and is reaping the benefits of investing in a fully turnkey line installation. Comprising both new and a pre-owned Blue-Robot, they have boosted hourly throughput by 46%, and virtually eliminated product/pack waste. What’s more, even in the busiest season, the line only requires a single operator, supported by two production staff working on the picking off table. This means senior managers, who were often drafted in to provide packing assistance in high season, are now able to focus their efforts on growing the business.  For Preva Produce the Blu-Robot presented them with an affordable automation option.  “I’d defy anyone to identify that we’ve installed a pre-owned robot, it came delivered as new.” Comments Preva Produce Managing Director Ian Anderson.

Within two years it is estimated that over 1.2 million robots will be working within the world’s manufacturing facilities.** Trends will come and go, but automation is here to stay. It is not so much a case of jumping on the bandwagon, but asking yourself can I really afford not to?

Winner of eight industry awards in 24 months, Pacepacker is hosting an open house event in June 2014 at its Essex-based HQ. Bulk handlers are welcome to view the very latest pick and place technologies from the award winning integrator.

Process Industry Informer

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