About: Mike Wilson - UK & Ireland Business Development Manager
Mike Wilson has over 35 years of experience in the application of automation to manufacturing across a broad range of industry sectors throughout Europe, Asia and America. Previously he has worked for both users and suppliers of automation and also as an independent consultant providing automation expertise to industry. He is widely recognised as one of the leading authorities on the application of industrial robot systems in the UK.
1. How could ABB’s industrial robots drive innovation to manufacturing businesses? Can you explain the payload, operating system and other technical details that you consider while manufacturing them?
Today’s manufacturing businesses are under growing pressure to do things better, quicker and right first time in order to meet customer demands for high-quality goods that can be delivered quickly and at the right price. Meeting these demands is putting a strain on many manufacturing businesses that are simply not equipped to deal with change or to produce goods in the sort of quantities that are needed.
Further pressure is also coming from the need to keep up with competitors that are applying digital technologies to achieve smarter, more joined-up manufacturing operations.
This is where robots can help. In countless applications worldwide, robotic automation has proven its ability to help manufacturers in a wide range of industries transform their performance, making them more productive, efficient and better able to react to change.
The latest generation of robots incorporate the latest technological developments including vision technology, force control and safety features that are increasingly allowing them to operate alongside human workers.
As the capabilities of robots have grown, so too has the scope for their application. As a result, today’s robots are now equally as applicable to low volume, small batch production processes as they are to mass production lines, opening new possibilities for companies that may have considered themselves to be too small or too specialized to automate their operations.
Developments in programming and operator interface technology that has made robots a lot easier to use are also helping to drive increased take-up. By breaking down many of the concerns around complexity, advances in areas such as software and robot controller technology have enabled a growing number of potential users to take their first steps towards smarter manufacturing.
In terms of how we manufacture our robots, everything we do is driven by an understanding of the needs and specific requirements of the industries we serve. With a heritage dating back over 40 years, we have built up extensive expertise and experience in the design, manufacture, supply, and support of robots and robot systems for multiple industrial sectors.
The full extent of what’s available can best be seen by taking a look at our web pages (www.abb.com/robotics) or our portfolio brochure. There is an extensive range of options covering a choice of payloads, designs, and accessories, with specific options that can be utilized in particular industries. Our robots for food and beverage and pharmaceutical applications, for example, feature hygienic designs that help to eliminate the risk of bacterial contamination. Similarly, for welding applications, our robots feature an ‘integrated dressing’ design. This design ensures that all cables and wires are fully housed within the robot itself, both to prevent damage through exposure to welding processes and to allow better precision through greater freedom of movement.
Our ability to offer robotic solutions is also further enhanced by our network of specialist systems integrators. With extensive expertise in their respective industries, they can help manufacturing companies of all sizes to develop bespoke solutions for their specific needs. Even if an ‘off the shelf’ solution is not immediately available, they can very often help to create one, combining our robots with different technologies to meet the customer’s exact needs.
2. Do ABB develop; manufacture robots that generate high production outputs in return for low investment? Would you mention these particular robotics of ABB?
The ability to help companies transform their production output is one of the key benefits of robotic automation. By helping to minimize or even eliminate many of the inherent inefficiencies that can occur on conventional production processes, all of the robots we offer can enable a greater range of products and product variations to be produced more quickly, consistently and with less wastage caused by errors.
To say that this can be achieved for a low investment would be misleading however. Ultimately, as in most things, you get what you pay for. There is a quote that I use quite a lot from a man called John Ruskin, who was a prominent social thinker in the 19th century and wrote on a number of subjects, including business and economics. Ruskin said:
“It's unwise to pay too much, but it's worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money - that's all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot - it can't be done.”
In my own experience, the companies that get it most wrong when supplying a robotic solution to their customers are the ones that quoted too low in order to get the job. When this happens, there is a tendency for them to either cut corners to make the budget fit, or to hit customers with charges for hidden extras to try to claw back their lost profit. In either case, the customer does not get the bargain they had been led to believe they would get.
Even though a quality solution will cost that little bit more, this is not to say that payback on an investment in robots cannot be recouped quickly. Very often, the improvements that can stem from using a robot can see payback on an investment in robots being recouped within a very short space of time – even just a few months in specific cases.
In this respect, it pays to be realistic. What you get out of a robot, or any automated system for that matter, very much relies on how well you plan things. To get the most from an investment, you should have a thorough understanding of your current process, the area or areas that you want to improve and where you think a robot could best fit in.
It should also be remembered that a well-executed robot installation will go on delivering benefits way past the point at which payback is achieved, enabling companies to effectively enjoy years of ‘free production’.
3. What is ABB’s breakthrough innovation in Automation which has revolutionized the industry?
ABB has an established track record in the development and launch of pioneering solutions across its entire portfolio, with our latest developments including groundbreaking technology for electric vehicle charging, for example.
In the world of robotics, our own track record is equally as impressive. As Asea (which became part of ABB in 1988), we were the first to launch an electrically-driven, microprocessor-controlled robot in 1974. Featuring a lightweight aluminium arm and offering fast and accurate performance, our IRB6/S1 robot was to set the standard for future industrial robots.
The launch of this first robot was the start of a tradition of innovation that has continued to the present day and which continues to guide our activities going forward.
In 1998, for example, we launched the FlexPicker high-speed robot. With an 8kg payload and the ability to pick up to 140 products per minute, the FlexPicker has become the popular choice for high-speed picking and packing lines, especially in the food and beverage and pharmaceutical industries.
Our most recent innovation is the dual-armed YuMi collaborative robot. Originally unveiled in 2014, YuMi’s human-friendly design makes it the world’s first truly collaborative robot. Incorporating advanced vision and safety technologies, YuMi can work in close proximity with human colleagues to deliver improved levels of productivity and efficiency in small parts assembly applications.
4. Your company provides various services such as extensions, upgrades and retrofits, maintenance, repairs, replacement etc. Can you explain the proficiency of your team in providing these services to your customers?
Our service and support offering for our robots is one of our major strengths. We appreciate that many of our customers will need help and guidance throughout all stages of the lifecycle of their robot, from specification, installation and commissioning right through to ongoing maintenance and, eventually, end of life replacement.
To help them, we offer a wide range of services to help them get the most from their investment. Our training courses, for example, provide a firm grounding in all aspects of robot operation, from the basics right through to more complex aspects such as application-specific programming and specialized training. These courses are delivered in a variety of different ways, including on-site training, classroom-based sessions, eLearning and webinars.
We can also help when it’s time for the customer to upgrade or retrofit their robot, suggesting potential improvements or add-ons that can enhance the robot’s performance or expand its capabilities.
For organisations that may lack the skilled expertise needed to maintain their robots, we offer a remote diagnostics and service package. Since 2007, we have delivered over 40,000 robots with embedded connectivity, with some 7,000 connected to the ABB Ability Connected Services platform in more than 750 customer sites in 40 countries.
The ABB Ability Connected Services platform consists of five services: Condition Monitoring & Diagnostics, Backup Management, Remote Access, Fleet Assessment, and Asset Optimization, each of which can be tailored to a customer’s exact requirements. Information on robot status is available through a web application that uses an alarm dashboard to provide customers and ABB Service with actionable information at any time, and from any place.
By effectively making robot ownership as easy as possible, the ABB Ability Connected Services platform is a key part of our strategy to increase the uptake of robotic automation across the industry.
5. Serving as a senior Business Development Manager, you’ve obviously witnessed some major business developments of ABB Robotics. In your opinion, which have been the most important business advancements recently?
One of the biggest developments has been the advent of digital manufacturing. Whether it’s called Industry 4.0, the 4th Industrial Revolution, smart manufacturing or the Industrial Internet of Things, the drive towards digitizing the factory floor is probably one of the biggest developments to hit manufacturing in the last 100 years. As such, it has huge potential ramifications for companies across all aspects of their operations, from the factory gate to the warehouse door. Most significantly, it promises to change the way in which human skills and abilities are utilized both today and into the future.
ABB offers a broad range of technologies that can help customers to achieve a smarter, joined up operation where data is shared between different stages of the production line to help optimize efficiency and productivity and reduce costs. Our aim is to ensure that technology is used to help make people more productive wherever possible, rather than as a way of replacing them.
Robots are a key part of this offering. When integrated with other parts of a production process, robots can help to transform performance, combining their inherent speed and precision with the ability to ensure that the right products are made in the right quantities, at the right time and to the right specification. Coupled with our application and offline programming software, plus our portfolio of digital support services, robots provide a simple and scalable platform for helping our customers to move towards creating the factories of the future.
We also see human workers remaining a key part of these factories. Although we’re a robot manufacturer, we believe that the best performing operation is the one that combines the ability and agility of robots with the innate creativity and flexibility of human workers. Advances in collaborative robotic technology are offering exciting new possibilities for employees and employers alike to develop new skills and new ways of doing things that can make for a more productive, efficient and satisfied workforce.
Whilst it’s easy to get excited about the potential of technology to transform manufacturing, it’s also important to remember that not every company is at the same level when it comes to using the latest production technologies such as robots.
A major focus for us has therefore been to promote the benefits of robotic automation outside of the traditional market strongholds of automotive and large-scale manufacturing processes, where take-up of robots has been relatively low.
We have put a lot of effort into focusing on small to medium enterprises (SMEs) across a wide spectrum of sectors, including smaller-scale food and beverage and pharmaceuticals production, metals fabrication, furniture and suppliers to the automotive manufacturers. We have also focused on more niche and specialized sectors, most notably aerospace, which have much smaller production runs.
Part of our drive to educate SME companies has included our Switch to Robots campaign. Aimed at UK manufacturing companies, the campaign sets out a simple step-by-step approach for introducing robots into their operations, starting with the question ‘How do you know if you need a robot?’. The effectiveness of this campaign is judged by the fact that we have seen nearly 200 companies coming through our doors in the past three years to find out how and where robotic automation could help them to change the way they operate.
6. Do you provide software tools based on specific industry requirements or customer needs?
We do indeed offer a wide range of application-specific software tools, each of which can be used to program our robots for particular tasks. When used with our RobotStudio offline programming suite, these tools can also be used to accurately simulate how the programmed robot will behave on the factory floor, highlighting potential areas for refinement and optimisation.
A major benefit of these tools is their ability to enable users to fully configure and refine the set-up of their robot in a virtual environment, eliminating the time, cost and disruption of physical testing with an actual robot.