Technologies and tools for a manufacturing transformation: Robotics and automation post-Covid-19 by Colin Thomas

As we map out how SME CEOs can benefit from a resurgence in manufacturing, Colin Thomas offers this guide to help to identify opportunities and advantages of automation.

Much has been written about the benefits of automation. For Australia’s SME manufacturers it could come down to safety, quality, capacity, cost or opportunity.

If your people are working in areas such as spot welding or grinding or exposed to excessively noisy operations. If there is a chance they are suffering strains or injuries that require administrative controls. Or if there is a requirement for personal protective equipment. Then you should look to robotics

If the accuracy of movement is critical to the quality of a product, then get the repeatability you need through robotics. 

Or if you are inspecting to be sure of quality; if you need higher output from a bottleneck workstation or process; if the labour cost in your product is too high there could be operations that don’t require the special range of skills that humans have.

In all of these cases you should consider robotics as an opportunity. 

I see manufacturers making amazing products in very efficient ways that would never be your starting point in automation, but by building up your automation capability and experience you will open people’s imagination and confidence to try new things

How to get into robotics and automation

This depends on your starting point.

If you haven’t done robotics and automation before you need to find someone who has.

Robots are not safe. It’s the people who understand robots and processes and hazards that can make them safe. So get connected with experienced people.

An automation system designer needs to understand the variables they are dealing with and design systems that will overcome these variables.

What’s the production rate? How many per hour / day / year are required? But keep a bit up your sleeve, because a robotic production cell won’t run all day every day. 

Try to extend the automated process to include the prior process and the next process, or at least make it easy for the following process by presenting the parts in the best possible way. 

One way to tackle the issue is to talk to the people who are currently doing the work. What makes it hard for people will be twice as hard for the robots.

Are they reaching with bad posture, pushing and hitting things to make them fit, inspecting? 

Show them your ideas and ask for their ideas and their criticisms. Importantly, include their ideas – an automation cell will work a lot better if the operator wants it to!

What hazards will be present and how can they be controlled? The answers will guide you to a collaborative cell, or a separated workspace or a fully enclosed work area.

How to learn about robots

One important learning tool is very simple – check out some YouTube videos for processes similar to your own.

Connect with other users and visit their facilities. Most engineers love to show their work and will be keen to show you and discuss your applications. This interest group in SA, led by Flinders University, meets regularly to share ideas. 

At some stage you’ll need to contact system integrators. If you don’t know the integrators, call the robot suppliers – they know the integrators and often the process-specific experts.

Have a think about who will operate it, and who will support it. Do they have the skills?

Investment justification
There are lots of factors to consider when deciding if it is the right investment to make.
Depending on how complex the task, there may be more to spend once it’s installed but that might provide benefits that you hadn’t imagined – so don’t be too brutal on the numbers. Try to think of other ways you might benefit.

I introduced a manual handling task as a walking and time-saving device, but the operators loved it because they didn’t get their gloves dirty so they didn’t have to change gloves all the time and we eliminated a cleaning operation because the parts didn’t get dirty. 

Consider the flexibility of anything you select. Flexible automation might allow you to introduce new products with little additional cost.

If your product lifespan is uncertain, consider the robot itself as a separate investment that can be redeployed to other tasks, should circumstances change.
If it’s technology that you don’t currently employ, the investment in people and process knowledge may well open doors that you couldn’t otherwise pass through.
Will Robots take away all the jobs?
Jobs will change.

But introducing robotics and automation will make you more competitive and increase your sales and increase your jobs across all the other tasks in the organisation. 

It will create jobs for machine builders and systems integrators. 

They will stay in business and support other manufacturers. And they will come up with other ideas that will help your business even more. 

You will come up with new products that you couldn’t make otherwise. 

We know robots will take away the need for people to do the dull dirty and dangerous. 

But from what I have seen they can deliver so much more.


Colin Thomas is manager of Flinders University’s Tonsley Manufacturing Innovation Hub where he liaises with local industry and spreads the word on manufacturing innovation. At Electrolux’s Adelaide domestic cooking plant, he was manufacturing engineering and plant maintenance manager.


@AuManufacturing’s Technologies and tools for a manufacturing transformation series is brought to you with

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