SME robot adoption

From the February 2024 print edition

Forecasts of exponential growth in collaborative robot (cobot) shipments, which are expected to nearly double every two years until 2030, reflect the assumption that a growing number of SME manufacturers will bring robots into their facilities for the first time.

“The big players in automotive and aerospace have had automation figured out for many years,” says Kristian Hulgard, general manager – Americas at OnRobot, based in Irving, Texas, “but most of the SME companies that we visit are just beginning to think about what they can automate.”

Despite the realization that the worker shortage is not likely to abate, few SME manufacturers have working robots in their facilities. “The latest statistic I saw is that 90 per cent of SMEs in the US don’t have a single robot,” says Hulgard. “Even if that figure is high and it’s only 60 per cent, that’s a massive proportion. And with the labour shortage, plus all the reshoring that’s going on, we’re expecting huge demand.”

Cobots are attractive to SMEs
for several reasons. Because of their size and safety features, they can operate in physical environments designed for human workers. Their price point – often as low as CDN$120,000 for a complete robotic solution – enables a return on investment of two years or less.

Introducing robotics, however, requires a way of looking at processes that is unfamiliar for many manufacturing managers, even if they’re experienced with other forms of automation. “Companies invite us into their facilities when they have a process in mind to automate,” says Hulgard. “What we find many times is that it’s more complex than they expected, and they might not be able to benefit financially from it.”

Many companies find this out the hard way, notes Arie Barendregt, president of Beamsville, Ontario robotics integrator Triple Automation. “We see lots of robots just sitting in corners because facilities are unsure of how to implement them properly into their processes,” says Barendregt. “Custom­ers are sold on the ‘ease’ of collaboratives. However, they still require technical abilities.”

While the current generation of robots can work in theory in an unlimited range of scenarios, matching the right tool to the job requires considerable expertise. “Today’s robots are extremely flexible, but it’s not like you can throw everything at it,” says Barendregt.

Some limitations can only be understood by experienced robotic engineers. For example, singularities – zones in a robot’s working trajectory where it loses functionality – can make some applications difficult or impractical. “There are certain restrictions in how the robot can move,” says Barendregt. “If you don’t have basic programing knowledge, you may fall into a hole of believing that the robot is capable of every movement.”

The other important limitation is safety, both from a practical and a regulatory standpoint. “In Canada, our safety regulations are high compared with any other country in the world,” says Barendregt, noting that there are severe restrictions on how a robot can move if it’s in proximity to people. “Those things you see on videos with people working shoulder-to-shoulder with cobots would be almost impossible to get approved here.”

Tried and true solutions
These constraints have led to a trend that took place decades ago in the software industry – the development of pre-engineered solutions for SMEs. The most rapidly growing solution areas for these are generic processes that don’t have complex interactions with other processes.

“Our approach is to try to sell pre-engineered solutions, because they are very inexpensive, most of the work has already been done, and there’s a proven ROI,” says Hulgard. “Then we’ll involve an integrator that has worked with that solution. Typically, they can get it up and running within a week. This is a dramatic change in how you can install and deploy robotic automation.”

One growing area is cobot-powered palletizing automation. “Palletizing is a good example,” says Hulgard. “Two or three years ago, end-of-line palletizing was something that wasn’t promoted much. But now, there are all kinds of companies selling standard solutions that they just roll in.”

These generic processes are so ubiquitous, Hulgard says, that most companies don’t even think about them as opportunities. “Companies typically don’t know where the opportunities are,” says Hulgard. “Naturally they’re not robotics experts, so sometimes the easiest opportunity is right in front of them, but they don’t see it.”

Triple Automation uses flexible end-of-arm tools from OnRobot and robotic arms from robotics manufacturer JAKA to create pre-engineered solutions for the food and manufacturing sectors. The company operates a test environment in its Beamsville facility, where each customer solution is assessed, engineered when needed, and tested before delivery to the customer.

“Creating a proof of concept on our floor with our team creates ease at the customer site when implementing a solution,” says Berendregt. The firm also provides videos to customers which they can show to safety inspectors.

While the implementation period is short, companies need to be careful about the implications of introducing automation for the first time. “Whenever
you install automation, there’s a change in culture in that facility,” says Hulgard. “It’s actually a more difficult part of the process to make sure that everyone on the floor understands the changes, what the benefits are, and how to work with the automation.”

Another point is that currently, there is a significant price gap between pre-engineered and custom solutions. “Everything’s possible in automation – it’s just a matter of how many zeros you want to write on your cheque,” says Hulgard. “But even if you’re willing to spend the money, we’re limited by the fact that the demand for robots is outgrowing the supply of engineers.”

That said, opportunities for simple pre-engineered solutions with a straightforward return on investment are for the most part untapped by SME manufacturers.

“I don’t think that we’ve ever been into a company where we’ve closed the door and said there was nothing we could do here,” says Hulgard. “I don’t think that’s ever happened.” SP