In this Q&A, KUKA UK’s Adam Hudson provides an insight into the trends and challenges within the plastics industry, how recent events have changed opinion, how Industry 4.0 is encouraging us to adapt, and ultimately the returns achieved through automation.
Greater efficiency, greater cost-effectiveness, and greater flexibility: there are several benefits attributed to robotic process automation within the plastics industry, all of which ultimately support process optimisation. Medium-sized companies in the plastics processing industry are retaining a competitive advantage through automating the manufacturing process – whether it’s handling or loading and unloading injection moulding machines or machining components.
Now, over to Adam Hudson, KUKA UK’s Plastics Sector Manager…
Q. How has the plastics industry diversified post-COVID-19/Brexit, and are attitudes towards automation changing as a result?
A. We’ve seen an increase in plastics companies looking to incorporate automation for reasons above and beyond just profitability, which has traditionally been the driving factor. Brexit has noticeably reduced accessibility to low-cost manual labour and COVID-19 restrictions have meant companies have had to rethink production landscapes that don’t allow for social distancing. With the threat of future pandemics now a real possibility, many production facilities are now more inclined than ever to make their practices durable. Robotics can play a big part in that process.
Q. What trends are you seeing in the plastics industry at the moment that dictates business owners must look to automated robotics as a solution?
A. Consumer demand is driving an increase in product variation/type. An increase in product quality, mostly fuelled by our (consumer) desire for less waste and a reduction in fewer disposable, single-use items. While this is great for the consumer, it can be a major headache for the manufacturer. Traditional methods of automation are well suited to high volume, low variation products. Tooling changes can be time-consuming and costly in a sector when every minute counts and costs! Robotics can reduce tooling changes by utilising multiple part programs and even adapt dynamically to variable outcome production processes.
Q. What key areas are seeing the biggest benefits at the moment from robot process automation?
A. Recent developments in force feedback, AIRSKIN® technology and sensitive robotics mean the robot is now more useful in the plastics industry than ever before. We can use the sensitivity of the robot to alter its extraction methods and its feedback to apply just the right amount of pressure to a deburring process and adjust dynamically. We can also incorporate AIRSKIN® technology to put robots in places where they may be at risk of coming into contact with an operator. This can be particularly useful in instances where traditional guarding is difficult or restrictive to use.
Q. What are the biggest challenges faced by manufacturers at present, and how can these challenges be overcome through automated processes?
A. Adaptability and high production costs are the biggest challenges facing many manufacturers in the plastics industry at the moment. Production contracts are being more fiercely fought than previously and loyalty harder than ever to win. The result is many companies find themselves taking on more short-term, lower volume contracts which can have a dramatic effect on their bottom line. Engineering projects and tool changeovers are the hardest aspect of production to cost and bill, as they are less likely to offer the predictability of production time. The flexibility of a 6-axis robot means it can operate with multiple end effectors and potentially be reused and repurposed in a number of ways. The less time these companies can spend undertaking engineering work and tool changeovers, the more chance they have of achieving consistent income.
Q. How do you think the industry will evolve from an automation perspective, and do you feel that ‘traditional’ processes can be retained – in which areas and why?
A. Industry 4.0 is teaching us about adaptability in production, but also of the connectivity and collaboration that can exist between processes. Many of the traditional aspects of plastics production will remain; they have been tried and tested for decades. The sector can evolve by linking these processes together more organically, such as having robots extracting from the IMM, sorting and packing, AGVs moving components from station to station only when needed, etc. The key though is that every aspect of that process is interactive and will adjust and adapt to its limitations or required output. The technology is already there for the taking; it just takes a few more of us to embrace for a brighter future.