Australian manufacturing must face the challenges of operating in a new, post-COVID landscape. Collaborative robotic applications can help manufacturers emerge more competitive with greater production flexibility, higher output, and better output quality, writes James Taylor of OnRobot.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have had to face once-in-a-lifetime challenges, perhaps both personally and economically. At the same time, geopolitical tensions have created uncertainty for some manufacturers with exposure to international markets.

However, once-in-a-lifetime challenges also present significant opportunities for those who are willing to learn and adapt. With that in mind, new innovations in manufacturing technology are a key development for manufacturers seeking sustainable growth in this changing climate.

For many years manufacturing played a significant role in Australia’s economic success and was one of the country’s biggest employment providers. In the 1980s, for instance, it accounted for roughly 16% of the country’s workforce—more than any other industry. So although Australia currently ranks last among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for manufacturing self-sufficiency, there is a history of success.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted economies around the world, but Australian manufacturing can adapt, capitalising on international supply chain disruptions to meet growing domestic business demands. Driven by new technologies and capabilities, including modern collaborative applications and automation, now could be the time for manufacturing to make its welcomed comeback.

The rise and advantage of collaborative applications

Collaborative applications – created when lightweight industrial robots and collaborative robots (cobots) are equipped with intelligent tools such as grippers, sensors, vision and the software that drives them – are the future of automation. These advanced technologies enable simple, rapid deployment and new processes while working safely alongside workers.

In the past, automation was viable only for large manufacturers who had the space, cash, and technical resources for large investments in traditional industrial robots. Companies needed large runs of the same products and processes over long periods of time. Investments took years to pay for themselves.

Collaborative applications provide a quick and easy entry-point to automation, particularly for smaller manufacturers whose businesses have lower-volume, high-mix production lines. These small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can emerge more competitive with greater production flexibility, higher output, and better quality. Since SMEs are more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and “black swan” events such as COVID-19, versatility and the capacity to quickly adjust manufacturing processes are hugely important.

One such Australian company that improved its manufacturing processes is Designed Mouldings, primarily serving the pharmaceutical industry with plastic injection-moulded components. The company integrated OnRobot’s VGC10 vacuum gripper with a cobot at its factory in Caringbah, New South Wales, to automate the delicate, time-consuming task of picking and placing plastic moulded caps.

Equipped with a collaborative vacuum gripper, the cobot autonomously executes the task, reducing operational costs, increasing productivity, and delivering an expected return on investment (RoI) of just six months. Employees work safely in close proximity, feeding raw materials to the robot and removing completed products from the line.

Opportunity within disruption

Supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have increased demand for domestic products and spurred policymakers to consider more manufacturing investments. Increasing Australia’s manufacturing self-sufficiency to 100% could add $180bn in new manufacturing output, boost GDP by $50bn a year, and create more than 650,000 jobs.

Adoption of new manufacturing methods using collaborative automation will be a key enabler. Strategic consulting firm AlphaBeta estimates that automation could boost Australia’s productivity and national income by $2.2 trillion by 2030, while leading to the development of new products, services and business models .

Collaborative automation can also help reduce manufacturing costs, which remain a roadblock in Australia. It can also relieve workers of dangerous, cumbersome, and otherwise boring tasks, freeing employees to take on higher-value jobs.

This advantage is evident at Sanmatsu, a Japanese contract manufacturer. The company paired OnRobot’s RG6 Dual grippers with a cobot to automate a machine tending application. The RG6 extracts and sets parts simultaneously with its dual grippers, speeding up cycle time and lowering machine idle time roughly by half. This eliminates the need to have a worker continuously stationed at the machine, reducing overtime and lowering production costs by 10%.

By offering greater flexibility and value, enabling onshoring capabilities, and helping produce higher quality results, I believe collaborative automation will help drive a resurgence of Australia’s once-potent manufacturing industry.

James Taylor is the General Manager – APAC for OnRobot.