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The Best Manufacturing Technology Trends From 2020

The Best Manufacturing Technology Trends From 2020

Trend is generally defined in one of two ways. Firstly, it might refer to a general direction in which something is heading or developing. Alternatively, it might be seen as synonym for fashion. Here, John Young, APAC director at automation parts supplier EU Automation, looks at some of the key manufacturing trends from 2020 and assesses which of these are mostly likely to play a more prominent role in 2021 and beyond.

Here to stay (at home)

By forcing businesses to facilitate remote working during lockdowns, the pandemic has encouraged a cultural shift. As the vaccine rolls out in 2021, don’t expect companies to return to previous levels of onsite working. Aided by digital technologies, manufacturing has experienced some of the benefits of remote working and greater flexibility.

Teleoperation can take many forms, but one interesting growth area in 2020 has been remote controlled vehicles in industrial settings. For example, a forklift truck can be equipped with cameras and sensors and controlled remotely by a driver working at the desk from home.

A helping robotic hand

Robot installations continue but the key growth area has been collaborative robots, or cobots. In comparison with more traditional industrial robots, cobots are smaller and are designed to be used safely alongside human workers. The uptake of this technology in metalworking and the automobile sector looks set to continue. Ford, for example, now uses cobots to install shock absorbers, freeing up human workers for more strategic tasks.

Much of this trend is in fact being driven by small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The size and startup costs of industrial robots shut out these companies from taking advantage of this area of automation. Cobots are small enough to be deployed in factories where space is at a premium and they require less initial investment, allowing businesses to increase their investment incrementally.

Smart learning about your suppliers

In a year where global values chains have faced unprecedented uncertainty, those companies that were quickest to embrace digital technologies in their supply chain management have braved the storm more readily.

Machine learning algorithms and their use in predictive maintenance is not an entirely new phenomenon, but its application continues to grow. As a supplier of automation parts, one growth area that has stood out for me is the use of machine learning algorithms to analyze supplier behavior, predicting when to expect a part from a supplier based on past patterns. This can improve inventory management and cash flow.

Let’s get personal

Increasing customization is being driven from both demand and supply side forces. On the demand side, customer behavior is showing preferences for greater levels of customization and personalization. The shift toward products-as-a-service business models and the ability to access and analyze large volumes of data about customer behavior is allowing manufacturers to understand this demand better.

On the supply side, there are many technological innovations that are allowing nimble manufacturers to incorporate greater customization. For example, ABB has implemented a manufacturing facility that revolves around cells of automation, in contrast to the traditional, linear production line. Instead, robots move from station to station for higher levels of customization.

Intelligence on the edge

Edge computing involves locating computer processing of data as close to the source of the data as possible. According to research by Gartner, around ten percent of enterprise-generated data is created and processed outside of traditional centralized data centers or the cloud. It is estimated that this figure will rise to 75 per cent by the middle of this decade.

Deployed intelligently as part of a blended or hybrid data architecture, edge computing can enhance predictive maintenance capabilities. For example, smart sensors deployed on industrial motors and pumps can enhance monitoring in real-time, alerting plant managers when it is time to contact a reliable parts supplier like EU Automation.  By locating the AI in the sensor itself, manufacturers save on cloud subscription services, enhance their cyber security and protect their operations from power outages.

5G rolls out and rolls on

5G is being rolled out, but its full potential will continue to roll on as it enables more and more manufacturers to transition to Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things. 5G, one hundred times faster than 4G, is not just a trend in itself, but a key enabler of many other technological innovations and something that will profoundly impact manufacturing over the next decade.

Here in Singapore, an interesting early application is a project involving IBM, Samsung Electronics, Singaporean telecommunications company M1 and Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority. The collaboration is designed to pilot 5G manufacturing use cases, as part of the country’s Smart Nation Initiative.

To give just one example from this project, 5G is facilitating the use of augmented reality (AR) for factory field engineers carrying out preventative maintenance. Without the speed of 5G, these engineers would lose hours of productivity in downloading the right AR model or require several technicians on site to resolve and issue that could be tackled remotely.

Fashion trends come and go but some trends are here to stay. 2020 has seen the increasing use of many technological innovations in manufacturing that will become increasingly prominent over the next few years. From 5G to cobots, companies large and small across the APAC region are leading the world in their adoption of Industry 4.0 and automation technology.

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EU Automation Celebrates Growth In 2020 Despite Turbulent Global Economy

EU Automation Celebrates Growth In 2020 Despite Turbulent Global Economy

It’s been a record year for automation parts supplier EU Automation, who managed to create new jobs and boost sales despite challenging times.

The company’s team has in fact grown by 14 per cent in 2020 and its global operations have expanded by 45 per cent in the last three years, making it one of Europe’s fastest growing automation parts suppliers. EU Automation has now sold more than a million automation parts worldwide, helping thousands of manufacturers keep their operations up and running.

EU Automation, which has headquarters in Frankfurt and warehouses in the UK, the US and Singapore, is currently servicing 156 countries worldwide in 22 different languages. This, together with the company’s rapid sales and team growth, has recently won it a place on The Sunday Times’s Fast Track 100 list, which celebrates Britain’s fastest growing private companies.

The automation supplier, which supports a wide variety of industries and vertical sectors, provides automation and control parts from all major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), including ABB, Fanuc, Honeywell, Siemens and many more. It has facilities in four strategic locations — the UK, the US, Germany and Singapore — and boasts a global network of partner suppliers located on all major continents.

This allows the company to ship automation parts globally in record times, helping manufacturers minimise costly downtime when equipment breaks. The reliability of the company has won it several world-renowned customers, among whom are Rolls Royce and Coca-Cola.

EU Automation provides new, reconditioned and obsolete parts and the team specialises in the correct management of legacy equipment. Their corporate philosophy is that obsolete doesn’t means useless or inefficient, and that manufacturers can successfully compete in Industry 4.0 by retrofitting their legacy equipment with obsolete but high-quality components.

This approach benefits manufacturers because it avoids or minimises the costs and complexity of overhauling an entire production line, and reduces the production of e-waste and industrial waste. This philosophy is reiterated in EU Automation’s numerous online learning initiatives, from a dedicated corporate magazine to an automation and manufacturing podcast, gathered into the company’s online Knowledge Hub.

EU Automation focuses on outstanding customer support, with a large team of international sales managers who support customers in their native languages. This allowed the company to achieve the perfect mix of digitalisation and human touch — customers can simply browse the supplier’s extensive database to find the parts they need, but will be assisted by a dedicated account manager in all subsequent phases of the purchasing process.

“We are very proud of how fast the company has grown. In particular, we’re happy to see our global team expand, despite the challenges that we’ve all had to face in 2020,” said Jonathan Wilkins, director of EU Automation. “This is the result of the hard work of our whole team and of the trust and loyalty of our customers.”

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Machines That See More

Machines that See More

When asked which of the traditional five senses they would most regret not having, human beings generally choose sight. Is the same true for industrial equipment? In this article, John Young of EU Automation looks at some of the latest trends in machine vision in metalworking.

The global machine vision market is worth approximately $9.6 billion and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.1 percent over the next five years, according to research by MarketsandMarkets. In the APAC region, demand is being boosted by manufacturers turning to artificial intelligence (AI), Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT), all of which benefit from machine vision capabilities.

Definitions of machine vision vary, but most involve the idea of using technology to extract information from images on an automated basis. Machine vision does not refer to a single piece of technology, but rather to multiple technologies, hardware, software and integrated systems.

Deployed in the right way, machine vision can help automate the repetitive and dull tasks traditionally carried out by human workers. For example, sorting parts on a conveyor by colour. Machine vision allows these jobs to be performed at higher speed and with greater consistency, resulting in more efficient quality control, reduced waste and higher yields for manufacturers.

Machine vision technology has been used in manufacturing applications since the 1980s, but there have been barriers to more widespread adoption. Traditionally, perhaps the two key difficulties for manufacturers contemplating adopting machine vision have been cost and the difficulty of installation. As well as being prohibitively expensive in many instances, the equipment often needed a trained and specialized system integrator to set it up.

The latest generation of machine vision technology has gone a long way towards solving these dilemmas by providing systems that are vastly less expensive and much quicker and easier to install. Furthermore, while some machine vision systems might have required hours of ‘training’, which involves feeding images of defective and non-defective parts to the system to allow it to improve its identification capacity, modern technology incorporates machine learning algorithms. This introduces a substantial level of automation into the process.

Another traditional hurdle for the adoption of machine vision in quality control has been the complexity of identifying defects. Take aluminium as an example. Distinguishing between genuine defect and an appropriate level of variation in this alloy is more difficult because of variations in colour and other properties of the material. Many manufacturers would persist with manual inspection, even when inspection errors were made in a quarter of all cases.

Today, machine vision technology is sophisticated enough to make it a commercially viable alternative to human inspection even in more difficult scenarios such as these. Although well-suited to inspection and quality control, modern machine vision systems are multi-purpose and multifunctional. Machine vision can simultaneously offer other benefits like checking OCR codes or monitoring factory equipment as part of a predictive maintenance program.

Enter Cobots

Automation in metalworking is growing and this growth is strongest in the APAC region. Cobots, or collaborative robots that can work safely alongside human workers, are a good example of this. Cobots are a key area of development in metalworking and are finding new uses in applications like welding, assembly and sorting.

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Automation Trends In Metalworking

Automation Trends in Metalworking

Metalworking has traditionally been slower than other sectors in its uptake of automation technologies. John Young, APAC director at automation parts supplier, EU Automation, looks at three key areas where current and future trends suggest metalworking is increasingly ready to shake off this reputation.

Automation and 3D printing

Not so long ago, 3D printing was mostly associated with rapid prototyping. In more recent years we have seen significant investment in additive manufacturing in the metalworking industry, driven by the demands of the defence and aerospace sectors.

This trend is set to increase. As was reported in last month’s edition of APMEN, recent research has estimated that the global market for 3D printing in metalworking is set to reach $5.51 billion by 2027. With a predicted CAGR of 31.7 percent, the Asia Pacific region can anticipate higher growth rates than any other region in the world.

The pros and cons of this disruptive innovation are relative to the application at hand, but as the technology constantly improves, its benefits are increasing. The advantages include the ability to manufacture more complex and lightweight parts and offer the design flexibility that is necessary to compete in today’s highly competitive markets. 

The drawbacks include the high costs and lower surface quality. However, the cost barrier is being lowered and combining both additive and subtractive machining, sometimes known as hybrid manufacturing, can help manufacturers exploit the unique benefits of 3D printing and CNC machining. We can already see the development of hybrid machines that combine these two contrasting processes into a single footprint. 

3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) is itself a form of automation. If we are talking about automation in AM though, we typically mean something more. Experts in this area are now focused on the integration of 3D printers into fully automated production lines with the assistance of the latest AM hardware and software.

A common trend is for the automation of post-processing functions and systems such as powder removal, part finishing and part cleaning. Automating these parts of the production process is allowing some manufacturers to achieve higher levels of productivity and repeatability. 

If advocates of greater automation in 3D printing are correct, it is automation that will lead to a higher rate of adoption of AM across the metalworking industry. More automation, it is argued, will bring down the cost per part and lower the reliance on manual labour, making AM a more competitive mode of manufacturing to more companies in the metalworking industry.

Robots and Cobots

The metalworking industry is witnessing the increasing use of robots as the cost of the technology gradually diminishes and as manufacturers begin to see automation as a solution to skills shortages. The adoption curve is notably higher for cobots. In contrast to larger industrial robots that are built to act autonomously and are typically housed behind safety cages, cobots are designed to operate safely alongside human workers.

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Continuing The Automation Legacy

Continuing the Automation Legacy

John Young, APAC director EU Automation, discusses the benefits of bringing legacy control systems into the fourth industrial revolution.

The cyclopic is an electric, foldable bike that’s set to be the most compact on the market. The invention takes inspiration from the Penny Farthing. Its handles are fixed upon the larger front wheel, and the back wheel folds inwards so the bike can fit into a portable bag that rolls along. The cyclopic is designed to offer users with a space-saving, lightweight solution to city travel. 

While manufacturers don’t use equipment that has been around as long as the original penny farthing, most facilities do still rely on older equipment in their production lines. As the first generation of factory automation comes to an end, the future of many control systems may seem bleak. In fact, a 2019 survey carried out by Dell Technologies found that 91 per cent of midsize and larger organisations face major hurdles to digital transformation. The notion that these organisations should scrap all their legacy systems in favour of new infrastructure is impractical. Instead, manufacturers should consider how their existing equipment can connect to the Internet of Things (IoT).

Out with the Old?

“The programmable controller’s time was right. It invented itself because there was a need for it, and other people had that same need.” Those are the words of Dick Morley, the father of the programmable logic controller (PLC) as he reflected on his invention, 40 years later. When the PLC was invented in the late 1960s, it was built to give manufacturers better insight into their plant’s processes. This need hasn’t changed very much in subsequent years. Real-time machine control is still a necessity, but the adoption of new technologies means that older PLCs may be lagging behind.

So, are these legacy systems destined for the scrap heap? Not necessarily, they just need to be able to monitor more processes. If we consider the monitoring needs of a variety of industries, it is clear that each one has its own set of requirements. A water utility may be required to monitor the health of its phonelines to make sure they’re working in case of an emergency; while a packaging facility that uses injection moulding may need to retrieve data on the speed of its machines. 

While control systems such as the PLC won’t be made redundant any time soon, their functions and capabilities will need to extend in order to manage these increased data requirements. 

Smarten Up

Manufacturers may need some support to take their control systems into the future. Modern PLCs often come with an Ethernet interface, which older or less expensive systems do not have. Instead, many legacy systems adopt a sometimes-bewildering range of serial communications and proprietary protocols that lack the interoperability most manufacturers require. 

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3D Printing And Counterfeit Automation Parts

3D Printing And Counterfeit Automation Parts

Sir Isaac Newton is famous as one of the greatest scientists of all time, but he also used his scientific genius to help catch counterfeiters during his time at the Royal Mint, the organisation responsible for producing England’s coinage. Today, in the world of industrial automation parts, even a genius like Newton would have trouble tracking down the counterfeiters. The emergence of 3D printing is one factor that accounts for this difficulty. Here, John Young, APAC director at EU Automation, explains more.

From prototyping and manufacturing, to the military and pharmaceuticals, 3D printing is increasingly used in a range of different sectors. Also known as additive manufacturing, it offers benefits such as fewer steps in the manufacturing process, reduced material waste, more complex designs and rapid prototyping.

However, 3D printing, like all technology, is a double-edged sword. Although the net impact of this manufacturing innovation on society will surely be positive, the technology will also be used to produce harder-to-detect counterfeits. The world of automation parts will be one area where this risk exists.

Make it until you fake it

There are a number of key ways in which 3D printing will give a fillip to the fraudsters. Firstly, 3D printing is so effective at producing replica parts that they will be harder to tell apart from the genuine articles.

Secondly, the technology is becoming cheaper and more readily available. A 3D printer is relatively affordable, given the sophistication of this technology and the price is continually getting lower.

Thirdly, aspiring counterfeiters will also find that the materials used for additive manufacturing, as well as the CAD designs and related software, are also becoming cheaper and more readily available. In fact, many of these CAD designs are freely available on the internet and in many places, the mere possession of a design is not itself a criminal offence.

Fourthly, patent law and IP protection will need to catch up with the times and in instances where there are global supply chains, international cooperation will be imperative. As with any novel application of technology to criminal activities, the scammers will have a head-start while honest manufacturers and law enforcement agencies struggle to keep pace with a rapidly emerging problem.

Finally, one factor that is perhaps overlooked when it comes to discussions of the dangers of 3D printing and counterfeiting, is how easy it is for the counterfeiters to move their operations. 3D printing is perfect for small footprint manufacturing, so counterfeiters will be unlikely to stay in one place for a prolonged period of time, making law enforcement more difficult.

Who can you trust?

Counterfeiting has been around since the invention of coinage thousands of years ago, and possibly longer. The fact that the US Missile Program was discovered to have inadvertently used counterfeited computer chips is testament to the ubiquity of the problem.

There are potential technological breakthroughs that will help defend against this problem in future. For example, counterfeiters might have the tech to easily replicate standard identification tags, but if you were to layer the QR code across hundreds of layers during the process of additive manufacturing it would be almost impossible to reverse engineer or replicate. ‘Exploding’ the QR tag like this is one interesting way in which science is already beginning the fightback against counterfeiting.

Manufacturers can look forward to these innovations becoming mainstream, but they should not have to wait before taking mitigative action. Counterfeit parts are more likely to break down and cause commercial losses through unplanned downtime. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a scientific genius to demand good warranties for your purchases and to find trusted suppliers whose reputations have been sustained over many years.

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Machine Shops In A Challenging World

Machine Shops in a Challenging World

The world may seem a very different place to what it was a few short months ago.  Yet from a manufacturing point of few, many of the trends identified before the coronavirus crisis are just as relevant today as they were before. In this article, John Young, APAC director at EU Automation, analyses some of the latest manufacturing challenges faced by machine shops and what manufacturers should do to improve their processes.

It has already become a cliché to say that the coronavirus pandemic changes everything. Yet if we step back from the present moment, we find that many of the key challenges and trends that will continue to impact manufacturing most in the months and years ahead are the very same things we have been talking about before the current crisis. 

The key challenge—or opportunity—is the potential impact of new technologies, particularly those associated with the fourth industrial revolution. The question was if and how these technologies would fundamentally transform machine shops. Will the impact of coronavirus slow the adoption of the technologies of the future, as business uncertainty leads companies to think twice about expensive upgrades? Or will it speed up the revolution that was already underway, as there now appear to be even greater reasons for automating manufacturing processes? The answer, if I could tentatively suggest one, will be a bit of both.

Accelerating the Uptake

We have read regularly in these pages about the marvels of new technologies. Whether we are talking about additive or subtractive manufacturing, or the latest machines combining greater functionality into a single footprint. Five-axis CNC machining, for example, allows machines to work with more complex geometries and produce cuts that would have been inaccessible for an older machine working on three axis.

Machine shop owners must judge if and when to invest in these upgrades. It is arguable that the lure of increased automation will be stronger now than ever before. Machine shops that require less human input because more basic processes are automated had their appeal before. Many machine shops were opting for greater automation when making purchasing decisions, even if it took a year or so to fully integrate. 

The early adopters will feel that their course of action has been validated by recent events and they now appear more resilient in the face of contemporary challenges. With a reduced need for direct human involvement in the manufacturing process, they are less vulnerable to the impact of shutdowns or prolonged social distancing measures.

Similarly, digitalisation not only offers gains in efficiency and removes the risk of human error, but also more easily allows for remote monitoring. Factors such as these give many of the technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution an added bonus right now. We told you so, you might hear their advocates cry.

If the current crisis does precipitate an accelerated uptake of new technologies, then that is to be celebrated. However, those who cannot afford expensive upgrades or systems overhauls need not feel like they are being left behind. It is probably more sensible to talk of evolution rather than revolution and its unfolding will be far from uniform. 

Manufacturers therefore need to carefully tread the middle line between enthusiastically accepting the benefits of new technology on the one hand, while on the other knowing that a one-size fits all approach would not be appropriate. 

The Inevitability of Obsolescence

Obsolescence is a logical consequence of this technological evolution and managing it is a major challenge for machine shops and manufacturers. Technological obsolescence takes place when a particular technology is rendered less useful by new technologies becoming available. In machining, punched tape technology was made obsolete by the emergence of modern CNC machines.

Product obsolescence is the term we use to refer to a situation where an OEM no longer supplies a part. This is set to become a greater problem in the coming years.

One factor driving this trend is the increased reliance on computers and electronics. Industrial systems are typically built to last for many years. Many electronic components have shorter life spans because development is driven by the needs of a consumer market, not the needs of industry. This is a dilemma that the previous generation of machine shop owners did not have to contend with.

Managing Obsolescence

For manufacturers looking to improve their processes, the first thing to understand here is that the word obsolescence has too many unwarranted negative connotations. Say obsolete and people think, useless, redundant or out of date.

 

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Robots On Subscription: RaaS Model In The APAC Region

Robots On Subscription: RaaS Model In The APAC Region

In 2018, two out of every three newly deployed industrial robot installations worldwide were in Asia. However, growth appears to be slowing, with just a one percent annual increase in 2018. In this context, what are the opportunities presented by the robots-as-a-service (RaaS) business model? Here, John Young, APAC sales director at EU Automation, discusses the potential impact of RaaS on the APAC region in the coming years.

Robots-as-a-service is a business model that offers the opportunity for a much quicker and more widespread adoption of robot technology across a range of sectors. Rather than acquiring the robot outright, the RaaS model gives businesses the opportunity to subscribe to use the robot as a service. Companies can pay to use robots on a yearly or monthly subscription, a project only basis, or per task completed.

The benefits of this model are obvious. Companies can avoid the excessively high capital costs of purchasing the robots and instead pay a more manageable subscription fee. This is especially attractive to smaller and medium sized businesses looking to make their first explorative forays into the world of robotics, allowing them to scale their operations much sooner than they would normally be able to.

READ: Collaborative Robot Market To Exceed US$11 Billion By 2030

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Secondly, the customer does not have to worry about maintenance costs because the responsibility for maintaining the robots resides with the supplier throughout the subscription period. Typically, RaaS systems are also provided with access to cloud-based software applications which lessens the burden on engineers. Finally, this model is valued for its flexibility. If the technology becomes obsolete or if the customer wants to change direction, they are not tied to a specific technology for a long period.

In the West, there has been plenty of hype surrounding the RaaS concept and its potential for facilitating a significant increase in the use of robotics. However, Asia remains the world’s largest market for industrial robots. Just five countries account for 74 percent of global robot installations and three of those are in Asia, namely China, Japan and South Korea.

The RaaS model could be one way in which the Asia Pacific region maintains its supremacy in this domain. The demand is certainly there. In many parts of the region, cultural attitudes toward robots are more positive than in the Western world and robots are valued for their emancipatory potential.

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In Japan, for example, robots are seen as a way of helping to solve the problem presented by an ageing population and there are already signs that the RaaS model is being adopted. A recent instance of this is Plus Automation, which has just won a contract to supply robots on a yearly contract to a company that is shipping apparel products.

However, there are some drawbacks to this model. While it lowers capital costs, companies that have to pay recurring subscription fees will fork out more in the long run. And although maintenance costs are included in the fee, physical fixes cannot be resolved remotely, which makes RaaS less attractive than related platforms such as software-as-a-service. This may mean that plant managers consider a mixed fleet of owned and subscription-based robots to add redundancy.

The APAC region is the world’s leading market for industrial robots. To maintain that position, it will need to embrace new and innovative business solutions like the RaaS model, which is especially attractive to smaller and medium sized enterprises. However, companies will have to weigh the costs and benefits of this particular way of doing business before deciding whether it is right for them.

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Automation Trends For 2020

Automation Trends for 2020

As we move into a new decade, what will 2020 mean for automation? John Young, APAC director at EU Automation, takes a look at the trends set to shape automation in the year ahead.

Over 20 years since Kevin Ashton coined the phrase ‘the Internet of Things’ (IoT), the manufacturing industry continues to develop ‘humanity’s nervous system’. Buoyed by a fast-growing economy, the tech-savvy Asia-Pacific (APAC) region has already paved the way for adopting innovations such as 5G and robotic process automation (RPA).

READ: Industrial Control Robotics⁠—The Next Great Leap In Manufacturing And Automation

In fact, South Korea was the first market globally to launch commercial 5G, while a report by PWC reveals that APAC’s RPA market is expected to grow 203 per cent by 2021. So, where could automation take the region in 2020?

The Environmental Factor

If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that we need to act fast if we’re going to protect our planet. The 2010s will go down as the hottest decade in history, with seven of our planet’s ten hottest years ever recorded taking place over the past ten years. But as our landscapes have transformed, so too must our attitudes towards consumption — an area where the manufacturing industry holds great responsibility.

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Currently, most facilities work following a linear model of make, use and dispose. This creates a lot of waste, as products have just one lifecycle, and leftover energy and materials are left to waste. A circular model allows manufacturers to keep everything in the supply chain in operation for as long as possible, including the goods they produce and the resources used to create them. For example, manufacturers can look at redirecting unused materials, such as wastewater from washing vegetables in a food manufacturing plant, for other tasks such as equipment washdowns.

As well as looking towards the future, manufacturers should also focus on their existing equipment in 2020. If a piece of equipment was to break down or experience wear and tear, manufacturers will be able to benefit the environment, their production line and their pockets by sourcing new parts from a reliable supplier, rather than getting rid of the entire machine.

Even More Autonomous

Back in 2016, MIT spin-off technology startup, NuTononmy, launched its robo-taxi driverless car service in Singapore. While many autonomous vehicle services remain in trial stages, there are a number of areas of automation that are beginning to step away from human control.

Collaborative robots, or cobots, took the robotics market by storm during the 2010s. Enabling human and robot workers to complement each other and carry out tasks in harmony, cobots relieve the workforce from manual, straining tasks without detracting from their own skillset. While cobots will continue to be a rising trend over the next decade, so too will automation with even greater autonomy.

READ: Flexible Gripping Delivers the Future of Automation Today

Autonomous things can include drones, robots, ships and appliances, which exploit artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out tasks in place of humans. Currently, autonomous technologies are mainly confined to controlled environments, such as ‘lights out’ factories. In these environments, autonomous machinery performs continuously with minimal human intervention. Robots are capable of carrying out a number of tasks, from picking and packing to even building fellow robots.

However, the presence of autonomous technology will continue to evolve in the public realm, as well as increasing on the shop floor. As AI allows automation to deliver behaviours that act more naturally with people, we can also expect to see more of autonomous technology in public spaces, just like NuTonomy’s taxi service.

Believe the Hype

While automating tasks that were once carried out by human workers has been a growing trend for a number of years, it’s set to experience a renaissance. One of Gartner’s top strategic technology trends for 2020 is hyper-automation, which takes automated processes to the next level.

READ: Automation To Take Center Stage In The Global Welding Equipment Market

Hyper-automation encompasses the totality of a business’s automation network under a single umbrella, meaning that not one, but many, automated technologies work in congruence to augment or replace human capabilities. These technologies could include RPA, AI, machine learning and business management software, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), which all work in sync to deliver a single solution. This approach refers to all the steps of automation, including the discovery, analysis design, automation, measurement, monitoring and reassessment.

The trend may have been kicked off with RPA, but Gartner states that RPA alone is not hyper-automation. While no single tool can replace human workers, hyper-automation’s belt of tools will allow better visualization of how key functions, processes and performance indicators interact to create business value.

As snappy social media videos and super speedy internet connections look set to dominate 2020, automation will also evolve. With environmental concerns at the top of many business’ agendas, it’s certain that material handling, asset management and maintenance will need to adapt. As automation continues to get smarter and technologies work closer together, we can also expect the evolution of a connected, hyper-automated production line to be on the cards for the future.

 

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Taking Metal To The Cloud

Taking metal to the cloud

Here’s a look at how cloud computing is transforming metalworking. Article by John Young, EU Automation.

Metalworking has played a pivotal role in the evolution of mankind, so much so that there are entire periods of history named after metals. While the Iron and Bronze Ages are behind us, society is framed by a whole other frontier of technology — The Information Age. But can the legacy of metalworking and the evolution of digitalisation work in unison?

Despite its deep-rooted history, metal fabrication remains an essential process in modern manufacturing. Rising urbanisation and industrialisation, burgeoning automotive and aerospace industries and new advancements in metal forming are just some of the many reasons why metalworking faces increased demand and expanding production.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) hits the shop floor, insight into its vast network of communicating machinery is accompanied by an ever-increasing access to the internet. The more machines ‘talk’, the more information they produce and as we enter the dawn of a data-driven era, managing this information is integral to its value.

Up in the Air

Also called ‘The Cloud’, cloud computing refers to software applications that run on remote servers instead of a user’s onsite IT infrastructure. The on-demand computing resource is gaining significant traction across industries that are looking to easily manage and access their data from anywhere in the world.

Regions all over the world are beginning to adopt the technology—and the Asia-Pacific region is no exception to the trend. In fact, the APAC region has been keen to reap the benefits of cloud computing across many of its industries.

Established in 2010, the Asia Cloud Computing Association (ACCA) represents the stakeholders of Asia’s cloud computing ecosystem and works to accelerate the growth of the technology across the region. According to ACCA’s 2018 Cloud Readiness Index (CRI), Singapore is APAC’s most cloud-ready region and, alongside Hong Kong, is a global leader in cloud readiness. Far ahead of larger economies such as the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, Singapore represents the APAC region’s swift adoption of the technology.

Blue Skies Beyond

Effective implementation of cloud computing goes beyond connecting your shop floor devices to the sky—it means connecting your shop floor to the rest of the business. With one accurate record on hand, employees, suppliers and partners can all refer to a single source of reliable information to increase consistency.

The innate scalability of cloud computing means that manufacturers can easily accommodate changes and growth to their projects. Resources can be leveraged on a pay-as-you-go or on-demand basis, which gives access to additional assets when required and without the need to invest in an expensive network of internal infrastructure.

Cloud computing can also accommodate product development with ease by facilitating collaboration with engineers and other members of the product development team much earlier in the design process, reducing the time frame from conception to launch.

Pass the Test

Quality often overtakes quantity in metal working, as errors can jeopardise both the function and appearance of products. One hurdle that manufacturers in the metal industry need to overcome is passivity.

Stainless steel doesn’t rust—in theory. Stainless steel is often corrosion resistant, but that doesn’t mean that it is completely impervious to rusting. To combat corrosion, the metal undergoes a treatment process known as passivation, which involves using an acidic solution to remove the free iron from the metal’s surface.

Once the surface iron is removed, the other components of the alloy—namely chromium and nickel—are left behind as a surface layer over the steel. Once these elements react with air, they form a protective oxide layer that prevents the steel from rusting.

More frequently, customers are asking for a passivity guarantee to ensure the quality of their steel. But measuring, verifying and reporting on an invisible layer of protective coating can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive. During testing, a section of steel that has undergone the same treatment as the end product is sent for verification from an independent lab.

However, concluding that the results from this sample are the same as those of the finished component is little more than an assumption—leaving manufacturers with little choice but to hope that the product passes the test. What’s more, receiving the test results can take hours, which could delay shipping if correction is required.

Cloud computing can provide a solution. With the help of a wireless tester, smartphone and cloud-based technology, data can be captured and reported from any location. Not only can IoT-enabled remote testing speed up the passivity process, but uploading the results to the cloud means that they can be shared with other departments and customers in an instant.

One surface technology company has already developed a cloud-based solution to streamline passivity testing. Walter Surface Technologies helps machine shops and fabricators leverage IoT technology with its cloud-based passivation app, which allows technicians to chart oxidation levels of stainless steel to measure its passivation state and seamlessly communicate it with the company’s customers.

Maintaining Efficiency

Perhaps one of the best uses of the cloud is as part of asset maintenance. Sensors that collect data on the health of equipment can send this information to the cloud for analysis. There, a streaming data processor transmits the sensor data to storage, otherwise known as a data lake.

The data is still raw at this point, so may contain irrelevant items. To turn the data into insightful information, it is sent to the big data warehouse where it is analysed with machine learning algorithms. These algorithms reveal correlations in datasets and detect any abnormal patterns.

This data collected can then be fed back into planned predictive maintenance (PPM) schemes and remote monitoring of equipment. Unlike reactive maintenance, which involves waiting for a piece of machinery to break, PPM can be used ahead of time to prevent breakdowns and downtime.

For example, a brake press used to bend sheet metal into complex shapes requires accurate control for precise bending. To maintain a high level of product quality, it is crucial that all the machines’ components are in perfect working order.

Let’s say a motor in the brake press is running at an abnormally high temperature. Data in the cloud would be able to flag this abnormality to prompt plant managers to get in touch with a parts supplier such as EU Automation before a breakdown occurs, drastically reducing the amount of associated downtime.

The days of the Bronze Age are long gone—but there’s no questioning that we’re in the golden age of digital manufacturing. Cloud computing boasts several benefits that allow the technology to deliver a scalable and insightful solution to a variety of industries. Metalworking may be one of society’s most ancient processes, but cloud-based solutions can help breathe life into the sector by monitoring its core processes, improving product quality and providing workers with actionable insight to increase efficiency.

 

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