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How robots can protect Malaysian manufacturing’s economic foothold: interview

AvantiKumar | Sept. 8, 2015
Universal Robots’ Shermine Gotfredsen said that Malaysia’s manufacturing sector should maintain its economic foothold in the current climate with new robot technologies.

Speaking to Computerworld Malaysia, Universal Robots' Singapore-based APAC General Manager, Shermine Gotfredsen, said Malaysia's manufacturing sector should maintain its economic foothold in the current climate with new 'thin robot' technologies.

In an earlier interview, Shermine noted an increasing demand for 'table top' robotics across Asia's manufacturing sector, which saw increased productivity and cost efficiencies.

Since the first UR robot entered the market in December 2008, the company said it has seen substantial growth with the robots now being sold in more than 50 countries worldwide.  Average payback period for UR robots is the fastest in the industry with only 195 days, it said. Universal Robots' global sales target is a doubling of revenue every year from 2014 to 2017

Shermine Gotfreden - Universal Robots APAC 

Photo - Shermine Gotfredsen, General Manager, APAC, Universal Robots


Could you introduce UR's latest offering and what this means for Malaysian industry?

We recently launched our new UR3 robot in March earlier this year. The UR3, which went through a three-year development phase, is an affordable tabletop robot that has a payload of 3kg and weighs only 11kg. It allows for 360-degree rotation on all wrist joints and infinite rotation on the end joint. The UR3 is a compact robot with the capabilities to function efficiently as the second member of a two-man team or as a standalone operator.

For Malaysia to maintain its economic standing, adopting new technologies to improve its manufacturing productivity and efficiency is becoming increasingly important in light of the technological advancement of its neighbours. Robots are viable alternatives that manufacturers can turn to as they are well designed to work with human operators. Also, anticipating future trends and planning for their arrivals is vital for Malaysia's manufacturers to keep up. Robots give industry players the manufacturing flexibility to stay on top of the game by being able to adapt to changing demands.

Are UR's robots suitable for both SMEs and larger organisations - any companies in Malaysia planning to - or have started using these solutions?

Although Universal Robots (UR) focuses on producing industrial robots that are suitable for and accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), larger organisations are also benefitting from these machines. Its safety features, easy programmability, affordability, size and portability have been well received by manufacturers from factories of different sizes.

The key features of UR's robots that contribute to a low cost of ownership for manufacturers include its small footprint, collaborative and safety functions, as well as easy-to-use interface.

As UR's robots occupy a small footprint, companies with high-mix, low-volume production lines can easily move them around to various workstations at any point in time. This gives companies the flexibility to adjust their lines swiftly according to their customers' requirements while keeping integration costs low. Factories with space constraints also stand to benefit as there will be no need to physically expand their production area.

In the past, it was difficult to ensure the safety of employees working closely with industrial robots. To reduce workplace accidents, expensive safety guarding was required to be built around the robots. Now, thanks to an inbuilt force-sensing feature, safety is one less issue to worry about, as the present-day robot will halt its action when it senses an obstruction in its path. Integration costs are lowered further when safety guarding is deemed unnecessary after conducting prior risk assessments.

Safety aside, smooth collaboration between humans and robots hinges heavily upon the ease of programmability and upkeep. This greatly reduces commissioning time as well as maintenance costs. The robot's touch screen interface is easy to operate, allowing employees to program it intuitively. For example, to program the robot arm along a specific path, it simply has to be moved to the desired waypoints. Minimal training is required for workers to learn how to operate these robots.

Which are the key industries in Malaysia and other ASEAN countries that UR has served to date?

UR robots are very flexible and due to the safety and collaborative feature, our robots have been used across a wide range of industries; from Automotive, electronics, semi-conductors, metal, plastics, rubber, pharmaceutical, food & beverage, logistics, general manufacturing consumer goods to even the construction and advertising industries. For example, UR robots have been used as marketing stunts in bars and sports boutiques showing casing mixing of cocktails and sport shoes respectively.  

Should manufacturers consider ROI or Payback Period when looking to invest in industrial robotic arms?

Payback period is expressed in years, and represents the time it takes for the amount invested in the asset to be repaid by the net cash outflow generated by the asset. There are many disadvantages of weighing investment risks this way. Namely, the metric does not take into account the future gains beyond the break-even period. This means that the long-term value of industrial robots is not reflected.

ROI is usually expressed as a percentage, calculating the net profit of the investment relative to the costs involved. As many manufacturing companies calculate ROI based on direct labor savings and short-term benefits, the figure will also not reflect the long-term benefits of industrial robots.

Aside from Payback Period and ROI, manufacturers should consider the indirect savings and long-term benefits like employment-related expenses, production stability and time for recruitment and training.

What are the other factors that manufacturers should take into account when considering deploying robots in their production lines?

Manufacturers can take into account the long-term benefits that are reaped when robots are deployed into their production lines.

Take for example employment-related expenses that are saved when the company uses robots. Aside from the routine inspection and maintenance of the robots, employee benefits such as yearly bonuses and health insurance are not applicable to them. Also, when required, robots can continue functioning beyond office hours to meet production deadlines.

Next, production stability is what a factory will likely enjoy when fitted with robots. Industrial robots are able to ensure consistent, high quality product output with its precise movements, preventing any wastage of materials. This is important for production lines that require high accuracy or are small but very costly. Thus, cost efficiency is assured by minimising production errors, especially in the electronics industry where materials can be pricey.

Time equates to money in a manufacturing company. Where robots are concerned, time is saved as the usual recruitment process is no longer necessary and they can be quickly set up for production. This can help offset the time needed to employ factory workers with the inevitable staff turnover.  

How do you think industrial robotic technology will fare in the next 10 years?

According to International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the demand for industrial robots will continue to grow at about 12 percent on average per year, from 2015 to 2017. The automotive industry will continue to account for a large percentage of the industrial robot orders. Other industries like the electronics industry and rubber and plastics industry are also set to see further increase in robot orders. 


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