Navigating productivity challenges with cobots

Shermine Gotfredsen, General Manager at Universal Robots, SEA & Oceania | Oct. 25, 2017
Productivity remains a key challenge for many businesses in Singapore.

This vendor-written piece has been edited by Executive Networks Media to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favour the submitter's approach.

Productivity remains a key challenge for many businesses in Singapore, mainly due to labour shortage and the effects of a weak global economic outlook. Over the last five years, real productivity growth averaged only 0.4 per cent each year, against real wage growth of 1.1 per cent per year - indicating a decline in the country's economic competitiveness. This sluggish productivity growth can be largely attributed to domestic-oriented sectors, such as retail and food and beverage (F&B), which have experienced a 0.6 per cent decline each year since 2014.

Low productivity growth, combined with rising costs, will continue to weigh down profit margins if left unaddressed. To stay relevant and sustain growth, businesses - big and small - must embrace innovation and find new ways to improve their business processes to raise productivity. Leveraging robotic automation is one of the most viable ways to achieve this.

Singapore is no stranger to robotic automation, with the number of industrial robots deployed nationwide increasing 20 per cent between 2010 and 2015. In fact, the country has one of the highest adoption rates in the world, in the league of Japan, the Republic of Korea and Germany.

A new generation of robots which are designed to work alongside people have emerged, greatly enhancing the benefits of robotic automation. These collaborative robots - or cobots - have capabilities to address the productivity gap across a gamut of sectors, ranging from manufacturing to F&B, through automation.


Why cobots?

Cobots offer businesses a sustainable solution for their productivity woes. Implementing and operating cobots is very simple and cost-effective, unlike traditional robots that often require a vast amount of time and monetary investment.

Cobots can be installed without incurring high costs or the need for special infrastructure to accommodate them. They are designed with built-in safety mechanisms that eliminate the need for physical safety barriers (subject to risk assessment).

They are lightweight, compact, easy to program and can be seamlessly integrated into existing applications. They can also be easily relocated or redeployed to perform different tasks. For example, Atria, a leading European manufacturer of vegetarian and gourmet food products, deployed cobots back and forth between packaging and labelling products. This reduced the time taken to switch tasks and decreased production downtime.  

Business owners can therefore enjoy higher productivity without having to invest in several machines for different operations, reaping the benefits of the cobot for the entirety of its lifespan.

The automation of repetitive, manual processes also helps employees enhance their performance and elevate productivity. Cobots can minimise errors in these processes enabling employees to deliver consistent, high-quality output each time.

Most importantly, cobots enable businesses to maximise operational efficiency. Besides the ability to operate tirelessly round-the-clock, the adaptability in deployment helps businesses reduce the time required to switch from one task to another. This minimises operational downtime, resulting in more productive hours allowing the business to increase its production capacity.


Cobots in domestically-focused sectors

The advantages presented by cobots, particularly their enhanced safety features and intuitive programming, extend the relevance of robotic automation beyond traditional industries to sectors such as F&B, hospitality and retail.

In such industries, businesses can use cobots to automate mundane and repetitive tasks such as baggage handling or meal preparation. For example, a hotel chain deployed a robotic chef to whip up different types of eggs as part of its breakfast buffet. Employees were then redeployed to higher value-added work requiring critical thinking, decision making or creativity such as managing floor operations, designing solutions to boost operational capacity, or improving service quality.

Through upskilling of the workforce and optimising resources, hoteliers, restaurateurs and service operators can improve service efficiency, while helping employees be more productive in the jobs that offer them greater satisfaction while creating greater value for the business.


Harnessing the power of collaboration

As more businesses realise that cobots are a strategic and cost-effective solution to bridge the productivity gap these smart machines will become more commonplace in a diverse range of industries. From traditional manufacturing to non-manufacturing sectors, cobots are a viable investment that can help a business sustain growth as they lift productivity in cost-effective ways.

Fundamentally, effective implementation of robotic automation relies on how the business harnesses the power of collaboration between man and machine. Successful businesses know that making the best use of the abilities of both technology and human skills will enable them to maximise efficiencies that neither can achieve on their own.