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Robotics and automation will create jobs, specialists reveal

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By Benjamin Brits

At a media round table event held recently, the adoption of robotics and levels of automation were addressed by executives of Yaskawa South Africa and Europe.

Hosting the event was Andrew Crackett – managing director of Yaskawa Robotics Southern Africa, Marcus Mead – managing director of Yaskawa Robotics Division Europe and Bruno Schnekenburger – president and chief executive officer of Yaskawa Europe, who aimed to offer several insights around global trends and how successful models could be replicated in Africa in the deployment of robotics and automation.

For most people – in business and the consumer environment, the thought of robots and automation is still strongly linked to an impact onto job security, and even further such dark and unspoken thoughts of robots “taking over the world”. This mindset unfortunately continues to influence a slow adoption and resistance from many sectors, however, today’s dynamics are forcing a different approach.

 A robot deployed in an agricultural bagging facility used to move and pack processed stock. Image credit: Yaskawa
A robot deployed in an agricultural bagging facility used to move and pack processed stock. Image credit: Yaskawa

The idea backing this knowledge exchange from Yaskawa was to break down some misconceptions and negative associations that may exist towards robotics and automation, and to put this technology in a positive light by showcasing the aspects that are not necessarily top of mind for decision makers.

Across the globe, the majority of robots are deployed in the automotive sector in manufacturing and assembly lines, and this space is also where Yaskawa already has a strong foothold. Their objective now will turn toward diversifying into other industries in the region such as warehousing, fast moving consumer goods, general industry (eg fertilisers and processing), palletising, as well as logistics.

It was mentioned that, as many have already experienced first-hand, navigating the last two years particularly has put a lot of businesses under pressure with increasing consumer demands and so what has resulted is an accelerated adoption of technology in the global trade cycle. Much of this increased activity is linked directly to storage, materials handling, and meeting the changed dynamics of foodstuff-ordering that now requires faster turnaround times that have become necessary to match e-commerce orders in a very competitive trading sector. This factor alone is complex as service providers must adapt to various conditions, customised delivery and regularly changing trends – both locally and internationally.

With the booming activity in the warehousing/storage sector with larger spaces being developed in strategic economic hubs around the country, facility owners have to become a lot more forward thinking in terms of setup, integration, product flows, accommodating varying goods and technology to future proof their operations.

Part of the discussion showed how it has therefore become a key element for facility owners and managers to ensure a well-structured mix to enhance their efficiency – which is achieved primarily by reducing losses such as that experienced along various points in the entire logistics chain in fact – from sorting to packaging aspects. Here a simple example that was offered was the consequences that occur when even the simplest inputs are misaligned such as product placements during automated packaging or containers that are mis-formed. Here the inclusion of robots with visual inspections can greatly assist the processing lines or flag any error. Similarly, robot bagging of produce or palletising systems can ensure much higher levels of quality. The possible application of robots and automation is so vast with many ranges and functions available from the smallest role to mass lifting applications that Yaskawa is able to supply as turnkey solutions – including meeting all of the HACCP requirements in safety standards.

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Addressing the common “elephant in the room”, the dialogue then turned towards the “fear” most industry segments have when considering robots, robotics and automation, and how Yaskawa negotiates these sentiments in the industry. The response was backed by several information streams which revealed that statistically countries which have high levels of autonomy such as Japan, Singapore, Germany, China and Korea – are by far more economically successful and can achieve optimal efficiency both in the use of raw materials and resources (including energy and water). They are also able to produce or process better quality products consistently, and this enhances their competitiveness in the global arena. Without competitiveness – a business cannot survive let alone create more jobs.

Yes, in the short term view the Yaskawa team acknowledged some job functions will likely be replaced by robots, but when one considers the greater picture, as was explained, the net result of automation and the implementation of robots is that more jobs are created than lost.

At first, this statement may seem like it is a disconnected view of several industries, however as the team proceeded to explain, the realities were revealed.

  • Robots can be deployed to ensure safety of workers. The opportunity to address several safety challenges at facilities can easily be managed by the inclusion of robots – from hazardous conditions such as those in ultra-low temperature environments to tasks that require extreme concentration for long periods of time thus avoiding near misses and workplace incidents. This also plays into worker wellbeing and mitigating of dangers which is a priority for most businesses.
  • The inclusion of robots can be at any level. Tasks can be achieved with the flexibility offered by robot and human collaboration. Currently the global average is that of around 120 robots per 10 000 employees and their inclusion grows overall productivity. In SA that number is far lower – estimated at 4 per 10 000 employees.
  • Better productivity, quality and efficiency leads to the creation of more jobs. When one considers the entire value chain both upstream and downstream from where robots are deployed in a manufacturing or processing facility, the result is that increased production capacity means that more materials and services are required up stream thus expanding job functions many times over – the same applies for downstream. More goods being produced expands several sectors such as storage, logistics and retail opportunities – for local or international consumption/use.
  • Automation and robotics will allow South Africa to be globally competitive. Rather than watching so much of our resources and commodities just leaving the borders, the country can embark on several beneficiation paths to grow the manufacturing and processing sectors – from foods to electronics – and truly participate in the global economy. The opportunity to improve the South African equation is therefore significant in this regard.
  • Robotics improve sustainability. One thing most people don’t realise is that by using modern manufacturing techniques, one will use less electrical energy, scrap/waste rates are reduced, low level labour jobs are turned into skilled employment, worker satisfaction increases, and the general costs of producing goods and services are lowered per unit and importantly making many more goods affordable for the population. One can imagine the cost of certain goods if labour was the major input in the food supply chain as an example – certain foods would become unaffordable.
  • Robots can form part of a digitisation strategy and Industry 4.0. Leveraging technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence, more solutions can be developed. While traditionally robots have been restricted to repetitive processes that are high in volumes – the future will include more advanced operations based on programmed parameters with understanding of an entire process and little to no intervention required.
  • Robots boost entrepreneurship. While this may again seem an odd statement, with the range of available robots and automation as well as what can be expected in the near future – this technology can support businesses at all levels – even to the extent where someone can install a robot to assist with cake decorating, craft work, food preparation or creative solutions for non-creative people – all of which builds up employment opportunities. So, ultimately this immediately affords a start-up business a level of competitiveness or uniqueness to sell their product or service.
  • Robot functions can be altered. In some instances, a robot’s capability can be altered to perform other tasks to meet changing environments and needs of any facility. This supports business sustainability.
  • Robots have diverse applications. From the smallest labour-intensive task right through to complex scientific and genetic work in the medical fields, robots can provide unmatched precision while also being extremely simple to use. This can be from industrial to commercial and even domestic level applications.

As human expectation and demands change from years of past waiting for a product for two weeks, to nearly instantaneous engagements today, the benefits of robotics and automation in our everyday life is expected to grow continuously. Already the installation of robots across the globe was reported to have doubled over recent years and will likely become a minimum inclusion for new engineers that will emerge in future with the drive to continually improve efficiency, productivity and support roles in human existence. The ability to react quickly and accurately will essentially be key for all businesses in particular to stay competitive and this cannot be achieved without advancing technology in operations.

Here a robot is handling freshly processed and packaged meat as part of an automated line. Image credit: Image credit: Yaskawa
Here a robot is handling freshly processed and packaged meat as part of an automated line. Image credit: Image credit: Yaskawa

Media guests were taken through the Yaskawa warehouse in Johannesburg and shown various units that can fulfil different roles in an integrated process and as stand-alone. Further the guests were able to observe the client testing zone where “setups” are done to evaluate clients’ particular needs/possibility in achievement of needs prior to adoption in their facilities.

The event was concluded with a networking opportunity with the Yaskawa team and general exchange of industry information.

Readers are encouraged to explore the vastness of robots and automation themselves – the range available today really includes any solutions one can think of, and one also doesn’t need to break the bank to make inclusion of this technology a reality in your operations. Speak to the professionals!

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