Automating to innovate on the factory floor
by Alanna Fairey, Associate Editor
A virtual summit co-hosted by Manufacturing AUTOMATION and Canadian Plastics looked at what role automation will play in recovery for manufacturers
TORONTO — When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world into lockdown back in March, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) saw temporary closures, labour shortages, new safety measures, production delays and even unexpected spikes in consumer demands. In this new environment, manufacturers have had to find ways to accommodate changes on the factory floor.
In a virtual summit co-hosted by Manufacturing AUTOMATION and Canadian Plastics, these magazines looked at ways to help manufacturers prepare for a potential second wave of the coronavirus and to ensure long-term competitiveness, with a focus on the role automation will play in recovery.
One session focused on the factors that should be considered when considering new industrial automation on the factory floor. Panel experts included:
- Santiago Olmedo, customer solutions engineering manager, Festo
- Michael Phillips, pre-sales engineer, Universal Robots
- Asghar Rizvi, director of automation and motion, Siemens
Known for their Collaborative Robots — nicknamed Cobots — Universal Robots’ Michael Phillips explained that cobots can help address not only the skills shortage, but also facilitate social distancing.
“Our goal is to improve the productivity of existing processes by using a collaborative approach — humans working alongside with robots,” Phillips said.
Phillips went on to explain that Cobots can be trained on the production floor by staff easily and quickly to set up jobs.
“The main takeaway from this is that these robots can be deployed for small production runs in small batches,” Phillips said. “Customers can then free up their employees to complete more meaningful work.”
Speaking from the Siemens perspective, Asghar Rizvi shared that COVID-19 not only accelerated the company’s transition to Industry 4.0 but also an “automation boom”.
“The power of data will assist in automating our factories of the future,” said Rizvi.
Rizvi then went on to review the digital technologies that enable manufacturers to operate remotely and more efficiently: remote working, AI in automation and integrated automation (IT/OT).
“We need to advise our customers on what will change in their lives by applying remote working, and how they can improve these experiences,” Rizvi said. “This pandemic will pass, but it will change how our executives will review their readiness for real time events. Real time data will play a very important role when it comes to this pandemic.”
Rizvi explained that artificial intelligence is set for a huge takeover in the coming years, and that the current COVID-19 situation is pushing the development of robots and the improvement of AI.
“This could lead to a new era of robotic human helpers,” Rizvi said. “It is expected that global AI software market will grow exponentially.”
Lastly, Rizvi shared that Siemens would be providing its customers with data at the field level rather than the cloud level.
“By this approach, we are able to do application and analytics at the edge of the application itself. Customers would save a lot of costs that are currently taken as an expense at the cloud level,” Rizvi said. “Digitalization has become a necessity instead of an option.”
Speaking on behalf of Festo, Santiago Olmedo said that the company’s customer solutions group played critical role in the selection and implementation of automation systems.
“We have a well rounded team of engineers, with solid project management and logistics functions, and our expertise comes from heavy piping and high volume,” Olmedo said. “Our goal is to make our customers more productive.”
He continued, “We offer integration support for our customers and a true engineering partnership … Customers are able to now order a complete subsystem with a function and performance commitment, rather than ordering many, many components that they have to integrate on their own.”
Olmedo added: “We welcome the opportunity to collaborate and develop new solutions with our customers based on their requirements.”
In another session, Michelle Chrétien, director, Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design Technologies (CAMDT), Sheridan College, looked ahead at how the future of industrial automation will expand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are different types of automation that are replacing the concept of robots, doing things we don’t want to do, and expanding the role and utility of automation to work alongside humans,” Chrétien said.
Chrétien reiterated Phillips’ thoughts by saying that collaborative robots will have a space in automation, noting that it will change the way manufacturing will look in a post-COVID-19 world.
However, she also noted that the advent of machine learning and AI will also have a massive impact on the industry.
In the event’s second session, Mentor Works president and founder Bernadeen McLeod took charge.
McLeod’s presentation addressed the ways manufacturers can scale automation in their workplace, including how to access key government funding opportunities for innovation and new manufacturing technologies.
“I find the best way to strategize and navigate in this space is to look at your strategic projects and put them into funding pools and look at your challenges and identify government programs that will help you with commercialization and business expansion,” McLeod said in her presentation. “Look at a separate group of programs that will help you with talent acquisition and training, a separate group of programs dedicated to R&D, and then a separate group for export development.”
McLeod went on to educate viewers on the different types of government funding, which include the Business Credit Availability Program (BCAP) and the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund, two COVID relief programs.
A partnership between Export Development Canada (EDC) and approved financial institutions across Canada, McLeod explains that BCAP is a low-interest loan product where — depending upon company revenues — a manufacturing company can borrow up to $300,000 to $12 million in funding.
“The banks take complete control of the program and you must approach your bank, outline what your shortfall is and fixed operating expenses over the next three to 18 months, and then the banks respond to you with this low-interest loan product,” McLeod explained. “There’s no repayment back for 12 months.”
Should a company be denied funding under BCAP, McLeod advised manufacturers to instead apply for the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund.
“This is up to a $500,000 loan product with no repayments until January 2023,” McLeod explained.
McLeod also stresses that when applying for government funding, manufacturers need to stress their project timelines, what types of expenses the projects require and the overall impact the project will have.
“I would encourage you to be aware that the assessment for government incentives are job creation, incremental revenue growth, and the government’s desire to support innovative processes and technologies into your production site,” McLeod said.
The final hour of the virtual event was a panel discussion that focused on funding, planning an innovation strategy, determining primary investments, best practices for testing and scaling, enterprise risk management and automation’s true cost.
Moderated by Manufacturing AUTOMATION editor Kristina Urquhart, the panelists for the final session included:
- Blair de Verteuil, vice-president of operations, Life Sciences, ATS Automation
- David Jeffrey, regional vice-president, Central Canada, Salesforce
- Shelley Fellows, chair, Automate Canada
- Bernadeen McLeod, president and founder, Mentor Works
de Verteuil said that the most important thing for manufacturers to consider during COVID-19 is to know what problem they are trying to fix and to know the objectives of their project in order to receive funding.
“Whether it’s cost-centric, unit cost reduction or a reduction in changeover time, your competition is edging you out,” de Verteuil said. “It’s really difficult to convince anyone internally or organization lenders and grant decision makers to pony up cash unless you really know what you’re selling.”
Jeffrey reiterated de Verteuil’s point, but also emphasized that it is important for manufacturer’s to not just articulate the problem, but to quantify it as well, advising that manufacturers “don’t want to be solving a $10 problem with $100 solution.”
“Sometimes people fail to quantify and you’re using a hammer to swat a fly,” Jeffrey said. “I think that’s something where a lot of companies struggle with cash flow.
“Obviously it’s a difficult thing to get over, but we see status quo as being the strongest gravitational force, the ability to have a vision, understand the problem and have a vision about what you’re going to do to change that.”
When discussing what manufacturers can expect as they start to develop their innovation strategy, Jeffrey said that it’s important for the manufacturing sector to adjust to the changes that COVID-19 has brought on, namely the adjustment of data-driven processes.
“If we fail to adjust and operate with the status quo, you run the risk of going down and unfortunately fear is a big motivator for change,” Jeffrey said. “These models are changing and it’s a huge opportunity, but it’s up to us to make sure we support that with the right types of technology.”
Lookig ahead, Felows said she believes that if the manufacturing industry does not implement changes to their technologies, it will result in a loss of competitiveness.
To remain competitive, adopting new innovative technologies for the factory floor will help manufacturers survive.
“If our Canadian manufacturers are not adopting the technologies that will help them be more profitable produce a better quality product in a safer manner, more efficient operations, efficient use of resources, they are going to lose ground competitively,” Fellows predicted.
“With the right partners, and the right collaboration and the right companies to collaborate with, manufacturers will be on the right path.”