Agile Robots: The Secret to Manufacturing Growth in 2020

Agility: if you haven’t heard it everywhere yet, you will. This year, manufacturers are prioritizing agility and robots are one way to achieve it.

If you asked me to pick one word to describe the manufacturing landscape as we enter this new decade, the word “unpredictable” seems quite apt.

There’s a feeling of uncertainty in the manufacturing world at the moment. But, uncertainty doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Unpredictability is why agile manufacturing has become one of the competitive advantages for 2020.

Agile manufacturing can be defined as:

“The capability of surviving and prospering in a competitive environment of continuous and unpredictable change by reacting quickly and effectively to changing markets, driven by customer-designed products and services.”

Traditional manufacturing was never agile. The manufacturing processes that began at the start of the industrial revolution were built around the ideas of mass production, stable supply lines, and market monopolies. These processes have worked well over the last 200 years, but things have changed recently.

These days, manufacturing businesses need to react much quicker to changes in the market than they have ever done before.

How can you react quickly? By being agile.

5 Market Challenges for 2020 That Necessitate Agility

According to a special report by IndustryWeek, several market challenges are coming together right now to necessitate more agile manufacturing:

  1. Market volatility — There is a lot of movement in the market right now. Supply chains are volatile, trade is uncertain, and consumer’s preferences are changing at an alarming rate. Manufacturers who can respond quickly are able to “ride” these changes much better than others.
  2. Costs — material, labor, and transportation/logistics — Costs are always going to affect a manufacturing business. However, the aforementioned volatility means that many manufacturers are being challenged by costs on all fronts right now.
  3. Price reduction pressures — Many manufacturers (particularly those generating over $100 million in revenue) are concerned by pressures to reduce prices. Any technology that can reduce production costs — without compromising quality — can only be a good thing.
  4. Regulations — environmental, labor, and business — The drive towards more sustainable businesses is certainly a good thing, but it can have its challenges. The need to keep up with changing regulations is placing a lot of pressure on some manufacturers.
  5. Global market — competition, geopolitical risks, and expansion — One of the biggest causes of the current uncertainty in manufacturing is the changing situation in the global market. Manufacturers have to keep up with both local and global trends. They need the ability to change their processes quickly to respond.

None of these challenges is entirely new for 2020, but they seem to be coming to a head right now in the manufacturing sector.

How Robots Can Help You Stay Agile

There are various ways that you can make your manufacturing business more agile, including: streamlining your processes, updating old technology, improving the speed of management decisions, etc.

But, robotics is increasingly becoming one of the “go-to” ways that manufacturing businesses, both small and large, are able to keep up in the changing world. Unlike the inflexible robots of the past, modern industrial robots have the capability to be very agile.

Robots? Agile? Really?

As researchers from the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) explain, robots are not traditionally considered agile. Until recently, industrial robots were only suited to highly structured, repeatable tasks which did not vary much over long production runs.

In other words, traditional robots were only suitable for mass production.

The problem with mass production is that it is, by nature, not agile. For the last decade or so, the market has moved towards an opposite paradigm — mass customization. There is an increasing demand for personalized products and our production technologies need to be able to handle this demand.

Modern robots actually fit in with the paradigm of mass customization very well.

With the right programming software, robots are easy and quick to reprogram without causing unnecessary downtime. This makes them well suited to the needs of agile manufacturing.

The 3 Key Aspects of Robot Agility

As the NIST research explains, there are three key aspects of an agile robot system:

  1. The robot should be able to be switched to a new task without having to shut it down for a long period of time.
  2. The robot should be able to recover from errors by itself.
  3. It should be possible to quickly swap in robots from different robot manufacturers so that the company isn’t tied to a single brand.

The second of these requirements is not yet possible to achieve reliably given that it requires the robot to have advanced decision-making abilities. However, the first and third requirements can be easily achieved by using the right offline programming software.

How to Make Your Manufacturing More Agile With Robots

If agility is the way to stay competitive in the global market of the 2020s, how do you as a manufacturer set yourself up for success?

With robots, the key is to ensure that you are operating the robot in an agile way.

If You’re Not Using Robots Yet

If you are not yet using robots, an agile robot cell could be a good addition to your production this year.

The important thing is to make sure that the robot cell itself is agile. You don’t want to be stuck with an inflexible robot which is difficult to update.

You should be able to easily reprogram the robot for new tasks, switch out different robot brands, and update programs without causing unnecessary downtime.

If You’re Already Using Robots

If robots are already part of your operation, now could be a good time to reassess the agility of your current robotic setup.

Ask yourself: How easy is it for your team to update the robot’s programs?

Are there any bottlenecks in the programming process?

Are there any ways that you could improve the robot setup to make it more agile in 2020?

Agile manufacturing has become one of the competitive advantages for 2020. With the right robot setup, you can set yourself up for success in this new decade.

Which aspects of your manufacturing are not yet as agile as they could be? Tell us in the comments below or join the discussion on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or in the RoboDK Forum.

Alex Owen-Hill

About Alex Owen-Hill

Alex Owen-Hill is a freelance writer and public speaker who blogs about a large range of topics, including science, presentation skills at CreateClarifyArticulate.com, storytelling and (of course) robotics. He completed a PhD in Telerobotics from Universidad Politecnica de Madrid as part of the PURESAFE project, in collaboration with CERN. As a recovering academic, he maintains a firm foot in the robotics world by blogging about industrial robotics.

View all posts by Alex Owen-Hill

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