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Cobots-Powered Automation Helps Manufacturers Combat Challenges
May 3, 2021 Blog


Authored by: James McKew, Regional Director Asia-Pacific Universal Robots

More than a year on with COVID-19 has taught us to expect the unexpected. Manufacturers have always been highly attuned to change, but the pandemic hit the manufacturing industry seemingly overnight, causing deep and long-lasting impacts. We can look back and see what manufacturers have learned about how to adapt and succeed in the face of adversity.

The strategy for manufacturers to succeed in a VUCA world

The term VUCA refers to “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous” conditions. For manufacturers, automation has emerged as the single most powerful tactic for succeeding in a VUCA world, whether that is caused by a pandemic or almost any other business challenge. For decades, automation has helped manufacturers improve continuity, flexibility, competitiveness, productivity, and employee safety. In today’s VUCA world, manufacturers are increasingly turning to collaborative automation. A flexible, easy-to-use collaborative robot (cobot) is a natural fit when changes occur quickly, reducing the time to plan, budget, hire, and train employees for new skills, or undertake extensive plant and company reconfigurations.

Irrigation equipment is critical for Indian agriculture and demand is high, but many firms have been hit hard by staff absences due to the pandemic. One of India’s leading agricultural equipment manufacturers, Krishi Group, was faced a 40 to 50 per cent reduction in its workforce and struggled to keep up with demand until a Universal Robots (UR) cobot was introduced to its facility. The cobot now works alongside a human on quality control tasks that previously required two workers to complete.

Supply chains need a “plan B”

The pandemic hit the global supply chain quickly and acutely, exposing the vulnerability that had been building up for years. Manufacturers now know that they need a “Plan B” in case remote production or supply is compromised and market demands shift. Many manufacturers have realised the advantage of being closer to their customers, even if that keeps them in regions with higher labour costs.

The key is to be able to manage workers in terms of their availability and safety and to increase their value and skills to meet new production needs. Cobots can help businesses of all sizes anticipate and respond more effectively to change, turning unexpected obstacles into new opportunities.

Labour shortages lead to opportunity

Previous offshoring trends were fuelled by the dependence on lower-cost labour. Advances in cobots have drastically increased productivity and reduced costs across a number of manufacturing processes. Many of these can now be easily restored and deployed domestically.  While labour rates in traditionally low-cost countries have seen annual increases in the double digits as well as the shortage of skilled labour, affordable cobots make automation even more accessible, independent of the company size.

PLC Industries, a Singapore-based service provider in precision engineering, was facing problems finding skilled labour and issues related to rising material and real estate costs. Therefore, the company decided to deploy two UR10 cobots at the production site in Singapore to overcome the challenges. The flexibility of UR10 allows a single worker to attend to four CNC machines. With the capability to work alongside human workers and the ease of use, this solves problems regarding the shortage of skilled labour. PLC Industries have witnessed an increase in production variety, boosting output by 40 per cent.

Meeting new safety requirements

The importance of physical distancing during COVID-19 has made infection control a new priority, and for many manufacturers, this new reality will continue indefinitely. Many successful manufacturers were able to reopen their doors more quickly with collaborative robots. By inserting UR cobots within standard production lines, these companies were able to offset face-to-face risks and create a safe distance between workers while keeping output levels high.

Multinational computer technology manufacturer Dell was looking to increase its production efficiency by automating its electronics assembly lines and testing facilities at their plant in Chennai – one of Dell’s only ten manufacturing plants in the world. The company deployed a UR cobot in 2017 for end of line packaging. After witnessing a reduction in ergonomic risks that Dell’s workers once faced and with the current COVID-19 challenges, the company has deployed 3 more cobots, increasing production efficiency while maintaining safety. Dell has found their cobots to be of additional value in the COVID-19 pandemic when the company has production demands to meet but must comply with physical distancing measures and ensure the safety of employees.

In many ways, manufacturers are navigating uncharted territories, but now more than a year on through the pandemic, we are finally seeing a promising future. Thanks to cobots, manufacturers are discovering innovative new opportunities to address a VUCA world and emerge smarter, sharper, and better prepared for any situation.