Faced with more global competition, today’s aerospace manufacturing environment sees companies striving to be leaner, more efficient and more flexible than ever before.
Through the application of the latest robotic automation technology, there are opportunities for manufacturing companies to gain a firm foothold by producing the correct specification goods more cost-effectively and at a faster rate. However, a number of challenges need to be overcome to remain competitive.
Robots offer unparalleled levels of flexibility, enabling them to handle many tasks and materials with minimal changes to set-up and without incurring excessive downtime while any adjustments are made. The diverse range of roles performed by a robot means they also offer a way of plugging skills gaps in the workforce. In many manufacturing processes, they offer levels of precision, speed and orderliness exceeding that of a highly-skilled human operator.
In many cases, robots enhance, rather than replace manual labour-based processes, and can take up the slack where manual workers are unable to cope, such as where production needs to be increased for a large scale or last-minute order. And as robots don’t suffer from sickness or require breaks - production disturbances caused by absence are eliminated.
To answer the critics’ claims that robots are stealing human jobs, in many instances where they are being deployed, companies are retraining their staff to program, operate and maintain them, opening up new career paths for staff and creating a bank of expertise that can be used to optimise production.
The aerospace sector is recognised for its strengths in design and innovation. Allying these virtues with those of robotic automation, companies of all sizes can hone their global competitiveness and improve their resistance against headaches, such as skills shortages, production fluctuations and demanding delivery deadlines that may currently be hampering operations.
Connecting all the dots
Industrial automation solutions provider, FANUC UK is actively demonstrating its next-generation automated capabilities. Under the banner ‘Connectivity’, FANUC offers a range of robot models across its collaborative SCARA and machine-tending portfolios with the potential for connectivity via its MT-Link software platform. As a scalable operation management tool, MT-Link can collect, monitor and display data of every machine being used on a factory floor.
According to FANUC UK’s managing director, Tom Bouchier, whilst the promise of higher level industrial connectivity via Industry 4.0 is set to revolutionise the manufacturing sector, it’s the lower, shopfloor level of connectivity that really needs to be addressed.
“We are adopting a more shopfloor-orientated approach via our FANUC Intelligent Edge Link Device (FIELD) and MTI link software products,” he begins. “We provide a diagnostics package with our robotic solutions, enabling them to be monitored anywhere in the world – either locally onsite, or up in the Cloud. We have 2,000 robots linked up to ensure that productivity is actually working and accurately predict any potential failures. We can ship spare parts to the customer, minimise any downtime and keep productivity running at an optimum level.”
Bouchier believes that developments within the collaborative robot (co-bot) intelligent handling device arena are certainly ones to watch. With the aerospace sector already being technology-savvy, its protagonists can quickly adopt and adapt to co-bots for whatever tasks they need to do. So, what kinds of automated robotic production tasks are we talking about here?
“With built-in sensors and the vision systems, FANUC co-bots can be used for operations, such as thread-tapping, whilst the human operator performs other tasks. They can be used to lift struts and spars – indeed, everywhere throughout the entire aircraft production and assembly process. Where our robotic products have an advantage over the competition is that underneath the skin, it is an industrial ‘production-ready’ robot, rather than a collaborative robot that has come from an academic, R&D background.”
Recent UK Government statistics claim skills shortages and we need to recruit young talent and demonstrate what an exciting, diverse and rewarding career engineering can offer young people entering the industry. But, just how many jobs will be available when the increase in automated manufacturing processes will clearly reduce the amount of human involvement?
“It’s imperative that we increase manufacturing productivity in the UK, if it’s to remain competitive on a global stage. Most people are capable of being re-skilled or up-skilled. We put our employees through robot programming courses, taking someone who perhaps hasn’t been academically challenged for many years, but who has been working on a manufacturing shopfloor, and training them to programme a robot in just four days. UK manufacturing will never achieve the desired productivity output numbers if it can’t do it as effectively as the global competition. We have to up-skill and we have to automate – it’s the only way we’re going to survive. Automation will still require the same number of workers in the current supply chain, but they will be able to produce three times the amount - and more efficiently with robots. In the 30 years since I’ve been working in robotics, every company I’ve ever known has grown through the adoption of automation. The first three Industrial Revolutions created more work for more people, so why shouldn’t the Fourth Industrial Revolution be any different?”
Adept at adaptation
There is the misconception that robotics is purely for larger manufacturing organisations, but according to Bouchier, it’s the SME manufacturing company workshops that stand to get the most benefit. Importantly, it’s not just the larger companies that can afford automation either.
“Payback time on one of our robot systems is generally between 12-18 months, so most companies can afford this kind of financial outlay,” he concludes. “What they can’t afford to do is buy outdated, bespoke machinery which is limited to only one type of role. One benefit of using a robot is that if the product type changes, the consumer simply re-tools and re-programmes the robot – it’s as easy as that.
“FANUC manufactures the equipment and the systems, so we can ensure our customers have exactly the right robot for the right role. Our robots are used to load components to a PCB, all the way up to lifting an aero-engine. Anyone attending FANUC’s production facilities in Japan will see that we are the biggest user of robots - because we have robots building robots. By the end of this year, we will be building 10,000 robots a month.”