Fact or fabrication: Busting the myths surrounding robotics

In many industrial operations they have long been integrated into wider automation and production processes. Why then are so many SME's, particularly within the food and drink industry, still deterred by robot technology and cautious about applying it to their processing and packaging operations? Pacepacker's Business Development Manager Paul Wilkinson tackles the most persistent myths.

Myth 1: 'Robots are too expensive'

Like any capital equipment, examine the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Typically a 'fit and forget' device, robots require much less maintenance than a mechanical equivalent.

For those with seasonal business variations or automation newcomers, pre-owned could be the answer. Pacepacker regularly supplies Blu-Robots, pre-owned robot arms. Most originate from the automotive industry, still have two-thirds of their operating life ahead of them, and are typically half the cost of a new system.

Also, remember to utilise tax relief incentives like the higher-threshold HMRC Annual Investment Allowance (AIA), which remains £500,000 until the end of 2015.

Myth 2: 'We don't have the in-house robotic expertise'

For engineering departments wary of unfamiliar technologies you can balance developing in-house expertise with out-of-house support and bespoke training. Remote diagnostics is also increasing, plus our support teams resolves 90% of issues by telephone.

Furthermore, today's palletising robots incorporate 20% fewer parts than predecessors. With less to go wrong, reliability exceeds 99.9% on robotic systems.

Myth 3: 'Once installed, a robot is a one trick pony'

Untrue - once payload, reach and operational speed are determined, reprogramming a robot to perform another task using a different end effector is relatively straightforward. In fact, they are much more flexible than mechanical alternatives, with a longer lifespan and much better TCO.

For stability, robots are typically frame mounted or a bolted to the floor. However, these can be easily moved and redeployed. We've done it, even customising a palletising robot within a transport frame for towing behind a tractor!

Myth 4: 'Robots are complicated to set up and programme'

Many new Pacepacker customers are surprised to learn that we handle all the set-up and robot programming. Once installed, this gives customers time to familiarise themselves with equipment under our team's guidance. In-house knowledge can be extended later which can be valuable for troubleshooting production issues, or when adding new programmes and functionality.

Myth 5: 'Robots are dangerous'

Like any device or vehicle, the secret is to recognise potential dangers, manage and mitigate any risks, introduce appropriate safeguards and ensure operatives are fully trained.

Mechanical barriers include perimeter guarding, panelling or mesh. Points of access (e.g. for cleaning/changing pallets) need a requisite interlock safety switch, safety curtain or light guard. Experienced integrators can ensure safety measures interface with the robot system and use software, like FANUC's Dual Check Safety, to pre-programme permissible areas of movement.

Myth 6: 'Bespoke robots take longer to install'

This common misconception is rooted in the idea that robots are more complex and higher-value. In fact, installations are usually faster, largely because programming can be conducted off site. Individual sections of larger installations can also be pre-tested prior to installation.

Myth 7: 'Integration with line equipment sourced from different manufacturers is difficult'

Another falsehood - the physical versatility of a robot arm usually offers more options for line layout. Height and angle of a robotic infeed and outfeed can adjusted, compensating for lack of flexibility in other production line sections. Doing it requires experience. Of course, control systems can differ; but even situations where different architecture is used there's usually a simple solution.

Myth 8: 'Vision systems are essential'

Although vision has a place, most robot installations don't warrant the investment. It can always be introduced later if required. For upstream handling where consistent orientation of products/packs is needed, a simple (cost-effective) sensor system makes sense. Costs can be kept down by combining a 'product locating' role with quality control functions.

Myth 9: 'Robotics is more relevant in higher-margin engineering industries than food and drink'

Lower margins in food and drink means we are observing a big impetus to invest in robotics. The way the export and import market is evolving, with an emphasis on quality and protecting brand reputation, more robots are being deployed. The growing range of end effectors and handling techniques, from vacuum to finger-type gripping, means there is a solution for every item type.

Myth 10: 'The payback time is too long'

When costs are continuously under pressure and competition for shelf space is intense this is when companies opt to automate. Manufacturers benefit, as do retail consumers. That's because automation enhances product quality and operational efficiency plus reduces waste. All of which helps to sustain existing supply contracts plus win new ones.

Customised systems can help you to stay within budget. Realistically, payback times will often be much shorter than anticipated, although this is application-dependent.

Finally, like all equipment, a robot remains an asset and will have a resale price.