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Impact Of COVID-19 And How The Crisis Is Shaping Universal Robots

Impact of COVID-19 And How The Crisis Is Shaping Universal Robots

In this Q&A, Martin Kjærbo, Universal Robot’s (UR) VP of Operations and Supply Chain, discusses how Universal Robots as a manufacturer is handling the COVID-19 pandemic, what the new challenges are, and how the crisis will shape Universal Robots going forward.

Martin Kjærbo

What are the changes in the way UR operations are run after the pandemic?

We started to closely follow the developments in China in early January and began to prepare for the spread of the virus to possibly impact the rest of the world markets we operate in. When stay-at-home orders emerged in numerous countries, we were prepared to adapt quickly.

Right now, all of our employees not directly involved in the physical production of our robots work from home. This means all admin, sales, management and R&D groups work remotely and stay in contact during daily, online meetings—this is the case both at our headquarters in Denmark and at our 27 offices around the world.

Many of our R&D engineers have been able to set up labs in their own garages. We sent robots home with them and it’s a setup that has actually worked surprisingly well, especially since they are also able to use and collaborate through some of the UR+ simulation software tools available. It has been a great experience to see just how quickly employees have adjusted.

Engineers at Universal Robots have been able to take the UR cobots home with them to continue research and development remotely

How has your supply chain been impacted and what have you done to mitigate this?

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused a major shakeup, no doubt about it. This is a time when the robustness of our supply chain is seriously challenged. Fortunately, we already had a dual-source supply chain in place, which meant that when China started shutting down, we weren’t as vulnerable and had options to get the same parts elsewhere. With China now opening back up and much of Europe still shut down, we’re seeing that same dual-sourcing strategy work the other way around. As a result, we have not had any disruptions to operations and our production capacity remains intact. Getting to this point, redirecting the supply chain, has definitely taken an unfathomable amount of agility and due diligence.

We are constantly trying to look further ahead now, getting purchase orders out for raw material earlier, and closely examining not just our own suppliers but also taking a look at their second-, third- and fourth-tier suppliers to make sure they can deliver as well. As a result, we have not had to re-engineer any of our robot models

Did you have to restructure your production line to minimise contagion risks?

On our production lines in Denmark, where all manufacturing of our robots is carried out, we have changed from one- to two-shift operation to physically spread our workforce out more. We adhere to the recommended two-meter (six feet) distancing regulations in between people, and have added hand sanitation stations basically everywhere you look. All staff members also wear gloves on the production lines. Wearing face masks is not part of the official recommendations in Denmark at this point, but should this become necessary, we do have masks ready to dispense.

Spreading the workforce out over two shifts also means less people in the cafeteria at the same time. At headquarters, we ask production staff to break in small groups, all meals are pre-plated with disposable cutlery, the buffet is gone to avoid cross-contamination. To underscore the social distancing during breaks as well, we removed half of the chairs in the cafeteria.

How do you communicate necessary production changes to your workforce, and how are they handling it?

We have had an amazing reaction from our employees; there’s definitely a heightened sense that we’re all in this together. There’s been an incredible amount of helpfulness, they all want to see our company through this. Many of the production adjustments have come directly from employees, suggesting how we can do this work task more efficiently, how do we clean this item, new ways to meet regulations, etc.

Going to a two-shift operation went very smoothly. Many of our employees who now have their children at home during the day welcomed working at night so they are able to spend more of the daytime hours with their kids.

Are you relying more on automation now than before?

We take our own medicine, so to say. On our assembly line, we have UR cobots assembling UR cobots. In a time like this, we of course closely examine each and every production task to see where we can alleviate employees and have the cobots take over even more tasks, adding even more automation on the line. That’s an ongoing process that has been accelerated by the pandemic. I think a lot of our customers are currently going through those same progressions, as they start realising how cobots can help free up personnel

Adding cobots to a production line has long helped many UR customers address labor shortages, essentially by spreading out employees and have them collaborate with cobots as seen here at SHAD in Spain where cobots work in tandem with operators in the assembly of motorcycle accessories.

How do you make sure your products reach the end customers on time?

Before the borders started shutting down, we began shipping our finished goods stock out to warehouses in the U.S., Malaysia, China and the Netherlands, as we anticipated the shutdown to impact freight as well. This has fortunately not happened to the extent that we feared, but there’s been quite a few logistics headaches as flights canceled. We recently had a large order on a flight out of Copenhagen cancel that we transported to Stockholm by truck and then were able to get on a plane out of there instead. There are issues like this that we constantly have to maneuver, but so far, we have not had any delays in getting the robots out to customers on time.

At our Danish headquarters, we keep the robots in two different warehouses, so in case there’s a coronavirus outbreak from one warehouse, we can ship from the other. This has fortunately not happened.

How do you think this crisis will shape your company going forward? What are some of the lessons learned?

I think one of the most significant lessons is the importance of dual-sourcing your supply chain and staying in very close contact with each and every supplier. I cannot emphasise this enough. We have an availability forecast on every single part number, we know our weak parts and make sure there are always back-up plans in place to secure those.

Will the way you operate your business change in the long term as well?

I think we will emerge from this forever changed. On the bright side, this has been a big wake-up call that has spurred an amazing amount of production adaptability and increased focus on securing healthy work environments. Our new sanitation stations are not going anywhere, even when the virus subsides.

On the other hand, it saddens me that the interpersonal relations will most likely not go back to the way we used to interact: the handshake, the friendly hug. I’m not sure when we will be able to communicate that way again and that saddens me. Hopefully one day, this will be possible again.

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China’s Manufacturing Vision: Globalisation, Automation, And Robotics?

China’s Manufacturing Vision: Globalisation, Automation, And Robotics?

Low-cost manufacturing played a huge role in making China the second largest economy, and the modern Chinese economy was built based on this competitive advantage in manufacturing. By Farah Nazurah

China has shifted from a centrally-planned to a market-based economy and has experienced rapid economic and social development over the past few decades. Its gross domestic product growth (GDP) has averaged nearly 10 percent a year—the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history—according to financial institution The World Bank.

The country’s manufacturing sector is expected to continue expanding in 2018 despite the slight decline of its purchasing managers’ index in December 2017, with a reading of 51.6, dipping from 51.8 the prior month, according to the National Bureau of Statistics in China.

Ambitious Belt And Road Initiative

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an immensely ambitious development campaign through which the country aims to boost trade and stimulate economic growth across Asia and beyond.

The initiative will connect Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa with a vast logistics and transport network, using roads, ports, railway tracks, pipelines, airports, transnational electric grids and even fibre optic lines. There are plans for pipelines and a port in Pakistan, bridges in Bangladesh and railways to Russia—all with the aim of creating what China calls a “modern Silk Road” trading route.

The plan at one point included 65 countries, which together accounted for one-third of global GDP and 60 percent of the world’s population, according to market intelligence company Oxford Economics. China plans to invest US$150 billion into the projects each year. In a report by financial services provider Fitch Ratings, it was highlighted that an extraordinary US$900 billion in projects were planned or are currently underway.

Impact Of The BRI On The Steel Industry

With BRI proposals including investments for power plants, new and improved ports, airports, and thousands of kilometres of new road and rail links, the initiative will have a major impact on regional and global manufacturers.

It is anticipated that the building of the route alone will result in an increase in demand for steel produced in China annually. The Chinese government is urging its steelmakers to invest in plants located along the routes in Southeast Asia, West Asia, and Africa, for the ease of transportation in bringing in raw materials and maintaining costs. Investors in the project are seeking out iron-ore mines and planning to build integrated steel mills on these routes. Steelmakers in China are expecting a move of almost 20 million tons of low-cost steel capacity to be transported to Southeast Asia, West Asia, and Africa by 2023.

For steelmakers, there is a stream of opportunities that arise due to the migration of steel production throughout the region. There have already been a number of new mills and upgrades within China’s largest steelmaking groups over the past several years; and more are expected over the coming years. As existing equipment is moved from coastal China along the route, there will be a need for new castings, forgings, and hydraulics to keep production running efficiently.

Moving Into Higher Value Manufacturing

Manufacturing goods in China is now only four percent cheaper than in the United States, according to market intelligence company Oxford Economics. This is due to increases in the average manufacturing wages by 80 percent annually since 2010. As a result of this, manufacturing in China has to move into higher value manufacturing, backed by investments worth billions by the Chinese government.

Manufacturers in China are aiming to capture the opportunity presented by the expanding affluence in the country. And more businesses in the country are moving up into segments where profits flow from high-value product features that command higher selling prices, with the industry rapidly moving into high technology manufacturing.

As an example, Chinese automotive manufacturer Great Wall Motors Company has increased research and development spending to develop premium sport-utility vehicle models that compete with international brands in the Chinese high-end market. Additionally, the automaker is sourcing more components from domestic suppliers, thus decreasing its reliance on imported parts.

China’s Future Manufacturing: Robotics And Automation

According to the International Federation of Robots, China is expected to contribute to 40 percent of total worldwide robotic sales by 2019, an increase from 27 percent in 2015. The country currently holds the largest market share of the robotic global market, at a net worth of US$30 billion, and is currently ranked the first in sales for industrial robots. This is followed by South Korea, Japan and the US.

China is turning to robotics and smart factory technologies to boost competitiveness as it aims to close the gap in manufacturing capabilities with Japan and German. And industrial robot sales in China in 2017 are estimated to reach US$4.2 billion, according to the Chinese Institute of Electronics.

“In the future, new business models will emerge,” said Hongtao Guo, director, industrial application research, Huawei Wireless X Labs, China. “Manufacturers will use automation robots to replace workers.”

New generations of industrial robots are more intelligent, agile and can collaborate with other robots and humans, thanks to advancing artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies. And equipment costs have been decreasing after hitting a peak in 2013, thus lowering the entry barrier for factories seeking to automate or update existing robot operations.

Automated Workforce

Robots are not China’s only target. The country is also investing heavily into accompanying technology like machine learning and artificial intelligence. All of this is to construct a highly developed automated workforce. More companies are looking towards automation to move up the manufacturing chain and maintain their production rates in the face of the country’s declining labour force.

In the automotive industry, the reliance on robots is driven partly by cost and automation is a competitive necessity. Robots perform tasks like welding in exactly the same way every time, improving quality control. As automakers compete for customers’ attention, they have to utilise the latest technologies, especially in research and development.

The challenge now is for businesses to keep a competitive edge in the changing manufacturing landscape.



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Doubling Up On Productivity

Doubling Up On Productivity

Thanks to the implementation of a new line featuring robots, which was made possible by the collaboration between SIR, a system integrator based in Modena, and FCA Cento, production of new engine blocks for 3000cc V6 diesel engines is doubled. Contributed by Comau

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Robotics Then & Now: Operational Efficiencies With Cobots

Robotics Then & Now: Operational Efficiencies With Cobots

Robots designed to work side-by-side with humans are safe, user-friendly and are easily integrated into existing applications. By Shermine Gotfredsen, general manager at Universal Robots, Southeast Asia and Oceania

In the early stages of robotics, automation was tedious as robots were usually used to automate large-scale productions. This was a lengthy process, taking up to months at a time, and often involved high implementation costs.

Robots were usually deployed in the manufacturing industry to automate large-scale production and for complex tasks. Such robotic applications involved complex deployment processes and required high levels of maintenance that could only be carried out by engineers with specialised skillsets.

Introduction Of Cobots

More recently, there have been significant strides in the development of robotic technology which has made automation easier than ever before. With the introduction of collaborative robots (cobots)—robots designed to work side-by-side with human workers—the process of automation has been simplified.

Offering features such as safety, user-friendliness and an ergonomic design, cobots are able to carry out a wider range of tasks at a lesser cost.

It is now more accessible and affordable for small and medium-sized business owners to deploy robots to carry out even the simplest of tasks, such as machine tending and pick-and-place operations. This has translated into high demand for industrial robots, with investment projected to grow at 10 per cent each year for the next ten years globally.

Robots now have enhanced safety features which make them perfectly safe to work alongside humans without the need for safety barriers, subject to prior risk assessment. They are also user-friendly—easy to program and easy to use—due to their intuitive nature, allowing them to be integrated easily into existing applications, regardless of a company’s production type or size. Robots have also become ergonomically designed in that they are lightweight, small and compact, creating more opportunities for robotic automation and process optimisation.

Cobots In Automotive Manufacturing

With the automotive sector in Asia poised for great growth, the adoption of cobots in automotive production processes to maximise operational efficiency is becoming increasingly common place.For instance, Nissan Motor Company streamlined its large-scale production processes at its Yokohama plant through the deployment of cobots. The company redeployed cobots from Universal Robots to assist with a range of different processes as required.

Using cobots to automate manufacturing of its engines and parts for electric and hybrid cars, the company achieved consistently high quality output while reducing production downtime and overhead costs. This also allowed its ageing workforce to enjoy a reduced workload and to be redeployed to less strenuous tasks.

Advantages For Businesses

Firms can easily benefit from the use of cobots without incurring high integration costs, making cobots a viable investment for long-term business sustainability and growth. Cobots have proven to be a valuable tool through which businesses can enjoy increased efficiency and productivity with output per worker shown to increase by as much as 30 percent in the manufacturing sector.They are also designed to perform a particular task round-the-clock, allowing businesses to maximise operational efficiencies and reduce production downtime.

Bringing Value To End-users

Cobots not only bring benefits to businesses, but also to the end-users who interact with them on a daily basis.The greatest benefit offered by robots is that they help end-users reduce mistakes by ensuring consistent, dependable output while relieving the amount of arduous physical effort required to carry out certain tasks.In such instances, cobots serve as an assistive tool to enhance performance and raise productivity by delivering high-quality results each time, rather than as a replacement for human staff.

Employees can also be redeployed from dangerous and repetitive tasks to take on more stimulating and higher level responsibilities, allowing them to upgrade their skillsets. Contrary to popular belief that many jobs will be lost through the automation process, an entirely new set of roles will be created. These roles will require people with the relevant technical skills needed to upkeep and update these systems.

As businesses grow and expand, additional manpower will be needed to meet the increased market demand and new product offerings. The use of robotics in business has in fact created many new jobs. Market research shows that robots will create up to two million jobs globally from 2017 to 2020.

Thinking Ahead

Robots have been deployed to solve business problems and maximise efficiencies, presenting a gamut of benefits for both businesses and end-users.

As businesses continue to automate, new robotic applications will be developed in more industries. This will result in a significant improvement in productivity and upgraded skillsets for employees, delivering a greater competitive advantage.


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