Automation has been a hot topic across a multitude of industries in recent years, but the unwelcome emergence of COVID-19 and its effect on manufacturing businesses has taken conversations in some circles to a new, heightened level. Dave Tudor spoke to Dr Paul Rivers, CEO of Leicester-based Guidance Automation for his take on the subject.
DT: Tell me about Guidance Automation – your expertise, number of employees, products, target markets and customers
PR: Guidance Automation was formed in the early 1990s, with over 25 years of experience in developing advanced solutions for the global robotic vehicle market. As a Leicester-based company, we are a team of 25 people.
We take a diverse approach to automation, acting as a consultancy to companies that make indoor electric vehicles, and we convert them into autonomous versions which serve the market need and improve operational performance.
There are virtually no autonomous vehicle manufacturers in the UK so Guidance Automation is rare – so much so that we currently only have two customers in the UK. We’ve helped MasterMover automate its tugger vehicles, taking their established manual product and adding the extra features that automation can bring.
Our parent company, Matthews Automation Solutions, provides multiple solutions to organisations within warehousing, logistics and picking and packing for e-commerce. Our autonomous vehicles are contributing a significant improvement in throughput efficiency and error reduction for e-fulfilment applications.
Our future lies in driving forward a range of innovations into game-changing products that deliver effective and efficient autonomous moving system solutions.
DT: According to the International Federation of Robotics, the UK ranks in 22nd place in terms of robot adoption with a robot density figure of 91 which is behind the global average of 99. Are these figures commensurate with your experience in the industry? Why do you think the UK has been so reluctant to embrace automation?
PR: The decline of manufacturing has been well reported over time, as it’s typically cheaper to import goods rather than to manufacture them.
Automation can be expensive to kick off: in our case, many companies want to try automation in their facility to see how it integrates by taking smaller steps and adding one or two vehicles. The problem with this approach is that the first vehicle you purchase is so expensive to integrate into the facility, it often stops a client trying it.
When you buy a forklift truck and the supplier ships it to you, it arrives and somebody can drive it around your facility, whereas if you were to buy an autonomous forklift truck, you can’t do this. Instead, you have to create maps of the facility for navigation purposes and route layouts for allowed travel areas. These are just some of the huge costs of the initial integration.
The UK needs to see success stories and working examples of the benefits of automation to spread the word and convince businesses that they could see the value within automation too.
DT: COVID-19 has affected the entire planet in unimaginable proportions, but in UK manufacturing the feeling is that it has accelerated the need for automation even more. Has this been your experience? Have you seen increased demand for your products and services since the onset of the pandemic?
PR: There has definitely been a realisation that we need to become more self-sufficient in the UK. COVID-19 has shown how we can look after our own needs without the need for importing.
Over the pandemic, we have seen an accelerated interest in automation. Working environments will no longer have to worry about any social distancing issues as automation can help to keep workers apart.
The initial shock of the current crisis back in March caused a reduction in the rate of orders from customers. Nobody could build vehicles, install vehicles at client sites, and the sales team were unable to generate interest. However, six months later these enquiries are rapidly growing again.
Uncertainty remains which will continue to hold things back, but once these hurdles are overcome, automation can become one of the benefactors of COVID-19.
DT: In general, would you say the penny is dropping in the UK regarding the adoption of automation? Is the message getting through? Why in your view is it important that we embrace it?
PR: Brexit is also adding uncertainty to the state of things in the short term. But the penny is dropping and I think the combination of wanting to make more in the UK, keeping social distancing rules and the workforce safe from health risks, manufacturing is increasingly going to be looking at automation.
In the logistics market, they have a huge growth to deal with and they don’t have the capacity to shut parts of the operation down whilst some automation is integrated. Now, we need to get past Christmas and then I truly believe that the penny will really start to fall.
DT: Automation has always been ‘sold’ on the understanding that robots will work alongside humans, but understandably there are concerns that robots and AI will displace jobs. Bearing in mind that not everyone is ‘upskillable’ what is your view?
PR: At the moment, where they have been installed, robots and people can definitely work together. Automation has helped to fill holes during the current pandemic where staff shortages have been an issue following furloughed workforces.
I agree that there will be a rate at which we can automate faster than re-skilling humans. Eventually, robots will be able to fix robots. As AI becomes more advanced and starts to take over roles which are not robotised, we are going to have a time when the rate of automation and AI will grow faster than developing the workforce can compete.
However when the world changes, whatever the revolution, the workforce changes. Candlemakers must have made light bulbs and components to provide the electricity to houses. Where are all of the people that used to work in the huge newspaper industry? Somehow jobs change and then new jobs are created.
DT: In recent years, connected manufacturing and Industry 4.0 concepts have evolved from buzzword status to reality. How crucial are robots and automation to successful implementation?
PR: Industry 4.0 is as much about collecting data and looking at process improvement to see how things are functioning and provide preventative maintenance and efficiency. AI will really help in analysing the vast amounts of data that we are collating.
Industry 4.0 is still coming, just like AI is, but as the two develop, automation will take advantage and the combination will help keep the spiralling integration going.
DT: I understand that often you recommend a partial adoption of automation rather than a total transformation. You actually advocate humans working alongside robots. Could you elaborate please?
[caption id="attachment_56102" align="alignright" width="252"] Paul Rivers - Guidance Automation[/caption]
PR: A partial adoption is trying to reach a compromise by bringing in a small number of vehicles or robotic elements to work alongside existing systems. You have to plan it first and look for the quick wins, such as where you have humans walking around moving boxes. These are processes that can be easily automated by the push of a button to call or send vehicles.
The vehicle can instead carry or tow the items from one area to another. With the human staying still, they can do the more complex parts of the process without having to waste time in-between.
A human can put their hand inside a container and quickly work out if the item is a banana, apple or a tin can, usually just from feel. We can orientate our fingers to quickly work out if we have taken too many, understand what we can drop or not drop and what can go onto the bottom of a tote etc.
If I had an unlimited budget, I could create a robot hand and camera system that could do all of this too, but realistically it's much cheaper to have humans do this part of the process, and this will remain the case for many years. Why have these expensive machines (humans) sat driving or walking when the best use of them is taking on the more difficult tasks that need to be done at both ends of the process?
Once the employees in your facility learn to interact with the small number of vehicles or robots, organisations can start to see places where they could add more optimisation. Your staff know your business the best and when they embrace the robots, they will suggest other uses for them.
You can then look at how to make the processes more efficient and the whole thing starts to spiral into a great investment.
The joy of smaller companies such as Guidance Automation is that we want to partner with companies who are looking to find solutions and help them grow. Small projects are great for us, as we can learn as much about our customers’ markets and challenges as they learn about automation. Larger businesses want volume and we are also are well-placed for those willing to invest in a new facility and want it automated from the start. There is a place for both.
Guidance Automation www.guidanceautomation.com