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Focus on competitiveness and resilience will make 2021 a big year for robots, KU

While 2020 has been the toughest year in decades for manufacturing and the British and Irish economies KUKA posted record robot sales last year, with demand coming from across manufacturing, education and training, the medical device sector in Ireland, and a substantial contract with electric vehicle manufacturer Arrival. 

Looking ahead into 2021, KUKA UK & Ireland believes the robotics and automation sectors are set for significant growth in response to a range of factors, including labour shortages, safe distancing required by Covid-19, the rising e-mobility vehicle market and growth in the life sciences sector.

KUKA strongly believes these and other factors will continue into 2021, as the manufacturing sector responds to Covid-19, the heavy reliance on increasingly scarce skilled labour resources, more reshoring and a greater awareness of the need to be competitive and more automated.

New social distancing requirements in factories and workplaces have increased the need for automation to create safe working environments, within limited floorspace availability.

This is a trend that KUKA expects to continue, even when effective vaccines are in circulation, as firms seek to instil virus-proof shopfloor safety. Automation strategies have driven a 12% increase in the number of robots installed globally in full year 2019, according to The International Federation of Robotics. On the effect of Covid-19, the IFR says robots have come to the fore in the crisis, giving manufacturers increased flexibility and enabling safe working conditions in various industrial environments. But it says the economic impact of Covid-19 has impacted capital investments, too.

E-mobility push

While automotive production and sales globally are down in 2020, KUKA is excited by growth in the e-mobility sector; specifically, electric commercial and delivery vehicles and buses. It is now positioning itself to become the preferred robot and automation supplier for this segment and there are several reasons why it can achieve it. Electric vehicles’ need for lightweighting means that more will be manufactured with composite materials, instead of aluminium and steel. Paul Williams, Sales Manager, Automotive and Tier One, says: “KUKA is very strong in composite assembly, cutting and drilling, with expertise from our aerospace background. Our complementary experience from the Systems Division in Germany, which supplies battery manufacturing assembly lines, can be transferred to the UK e-mobility sector.”

In September, automotive body SMMT reported that year-to-date registrations of all categories of electric and alternatively fuelled vehicles in the UK were higher than the same period in 2019. Battery electric vehicles, and mild hybrid electric diesel and petrol vehicles were up well over 100%, demonstrating the e-mobility market is growing fast.

The need for vision systems in modern vehicles is a feature of the next-generation car industry that requires robots, says Mark Elwell, Head of Robot Sales Ireland. “Robots are used to apply glue on lenses and place cameras in their housings. Cameras are widely used on most car models and will only increase with the planned autonomous self-driving vehicles. We are actively progressing this market together with our research and integration partners,” he adds.

Explosion of e-commerce

As the lockdowns of 2020 paralysed consumer movement, online retail and distribution centres benefited. The explosion in direct-to-consumer sales and e-commerce has driven demand for picking and packing robots and automated guided vehicles (AGVs). Both KUKA and sister company Swisslog produce AGVs for logistics and factory operations and demand is expected to grow through 2021, as the e-commerce boom is set to run and run.

The food and beverage industry has struggled to operate within the restrictions imposed by covid-19. Many food factory operations have workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, or in close proximity; this had to change to accommodate safe distancing. “Social distancing is one factor but food and beverage companies are also struggling to find and retain labour, where there is high churn and less access to normally reliable foreign labour with Brexit,” says Managing Director, KUKA Ireland, Brian Cooney. “More companies are realising they have to be resilient, whether it be a pandemic or a global economic shock; they need a level of automation to have this resilience.”

Companies that had already installed significant automated processes were those able to react most positively and then to scale up production when the market recovers, Brian adds. KUKA expects higher robot sales and consultancy to the food and beverage and labour-intensive general manufacturing sectors in 2021, as the message about resilience sinks in.

Training and education embrace robots

Another big trend that will drive robot investment in 2021 and beyond is training and skills. There is a serious shortage of “business ready” robot programming skills in both the UK and Ireland but KUKA has always believed in the fundamental need for appropriately-skilled operators, technicians and engineers, in order to extract the greatest capability from automated machines, assembly lines and research projects. 

In November 2020, KUKA Ireland won a significant tender to supply the Louth & Meath Education and Training Board (LMETB) with a range of educational and collaborative robots for its new state-of-the-art Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre of Excellence (AMTCE) in Dundalk, Co. Louth. The training facility – set to be the largest vocational training facility of its kind in Europe – includes tailored educational industrial 6-axis robots with vision systems, robotic welding cells, robotic milling/machining cells and collaborative robot, or “cobot”, cells.

Mark Elwell, KUKA Ireland, says “Manufacturing is experiencing a serious skills and knowledge gap in advanced manufacturing technologies at vocational level. The investment by the LMETB in this visionary AMTCE training centre is not only addressing this skills gap in Ireland but is also setting the standard by which other European centres may be measured.”

In the UK last September, automation received a boost from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund with the launch of the Manufacturing Made Smarter competition, a £20 million fund to set up and run smart factories that serve as training centres. The pot could be divided into, for example, five centres of £4m-£5m each, equipped with robots, automation equipment and other advanced manufacturing technologies. KUKA UK is involved in bids in Sheffield, Wales, Edinburgh and London. “The bids have different themes; one is “Inclusion”, where the centre demonstrates social value,” says KUKA Sector Manager for Education and Training, Alan Oakley. “For example, cobots could be modified for workers with disabilities to adjust for how they would interact differently to the equipment.”

The robust life sciences sector in Ireland, which covers medical devices, implants, biotechnology and pharmaceutical, is second only in size to Germany’s. The sector suffered from soft demand in some elective driven segments in 2020, but the core medical devices remained strong, while Pharmaceutical and PPE equipment production boomed. Laboratories are presenting new applications for robots and cobots, especially in labs and clean rooms, that require precise, repetitive processes.

KUKA Ireland expects life sciences will continue to grow strongly in 2021 and will make further automation investment to lift capacity.

The growing use of robots integrated with machine tools and injection moulding machines for loading/unloading parts, to increase capacity and move to 24-hour a day production, is another significant trend. 

With so many factors influenced by Covid-19, rising demand for robots in the education and training sectors, and the growing realisation that manufacturing companies must automate to increase both their competitiveness and resilience, KUKA is confident that 2021 will be a strong year for manufacturing’s adoption of more robot and automation systems.

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