Innovation in Automation

Applied Robotics

Since mechanization, the use of machinery to assist employees in simple tasks, such as bearing loads, has significantly increased the manufacturing industry’s ability to output product; but beyond that, automation, wherein not only the muscle but some of the simpler the brain functions are automated, has the potential to truly enable Australian manufacturers to introduce innovative products at competitive prices, levelling the playing field with lower cost foreign imports.

Taking the lead in this innovative field, Dr Paul Wong and Applied Robotics, Australia’s own industry leader, work toward creating new and innovative solutions for the manufacturing sector across a range of markets, often introducing “world’s first” and “world’s fastest” products.

Before Paul introduced Australia to Applied Robotics, he developed automated sheep shearing technology for the Australian Wool Corporation. “Our team worked on applying new automation technologies, along with good engineering to advance automation into a brand new application area,” he explains. “The project was very much along the lines of my personal interests.”

Creating technology that remains leading edge to this day, Paul launched Applied Robotics in 1986 when the Wool Corporation ran into financial trouble instigated by the Asian financial crisis at that time.

Since its founding, Applied Robotics has always maintained a strong interest in creating new applications for existing technologies, and in developing new technologies to provide innovative solutions for industry by way of automation. One of the group’s earliest major projects was the development of technology for the clothing and textiles industry. “One of the areas that we specialised in from ‘85 to the early ‘90s was automation for the clothing and textiles industry,” explains Paul. “It was untouched by automation, and the sector wanted the benefits of automation.”

While the automotive and electronic industries used the leverage of automation to good advantage, with a large enough production volume to justify it, clothing and textiles remained much as they had for centuries beforehand, employing hundreds of employees at sewing machines. Says Paul, “We’ve always targeted that end of the market where we supply novel solutions, and new solutions for manufacturing automation.”

Today, nearly half of the systems that Applied Robotics supplies to manufacturers for their factory floors are entirely novel and preceded by an exhaustive research and development phase, often with one or more functions of a particular project having never been automated in the past. “We have to prove that it is possible and cost effective before clients will buy the whole system,” Paul explains. Indeed, understanding clients’ needs is key to creating valuable solutions which make the manufacturers’ process more efficient and cost effective.

Applied Robotics’ current focus, and the direction that Paul sees the industry moving toward, is the automation of procedures which have not been possible in the past, such as working with components that are irregular, porous, or fragile. “If you look around and see what has been automated in the last 25 years, and what has not been, you pretty much see that the jobs that have been automated are repetitive and consistent operations.” Moving beyond this model means creating smart, adaptive technologies that can work in inconsistent environments and with products that may have changing qualities.

Now with nearly thirty years of experience, Applied Robotics is known throughout the industry as the go-to solutions provider in the field of automation, with clients searching out the company and inviting it out into the field to examine their manufacturing processes. “People will come to us and ask us what we think is possible in terms of a particular application.”

In order to create innovative new solutions so consistently, Applied Robotics employs a multi-step discovery process which begins with a walkthrough and visual inspection of a particular site, or a particular process that has been targeted. Through discussion with managers and directors, the company works to understand the manufacturing process of a client and the needs that they must have met to remain competitive.

“We do automation audits, where we offer to just walk through a factory with the manufacturing manager or director, and work to point out which tasks are feasible for automation and whereabouts, on a scale of one to ten, how difficult or intensive the creation of the solution might be.”

By identifying the crucial element that has never been automated before, and exploring the concept through bench-testing and modelling, Applied Robotics works to create a viable solution and moves through the prototyping process and onto actually “cutting steel.” Using a staged approach, the company is able to manage risk both for itself and for clients.

“These projects are very exciting,” shares Paul, “because the processes and solutions we create have often never been done before, and our prototypes prove that a new process works.”

It is this innovative process that has allowed Applied Robotics to dominate the Australian market with its novel and inventive solutions. While some groups find success by offering a product cheaper than anyone else may offer it, Paul and company have made a business of offering solutions that don’t yet exist.

“That has been our strategy, to sell a unique product and service for our market area by supplying machinery that will automate a task that has never been automated before and that clients cannot get off the shelf.”

In such a creative industry, where innovation is quite literally a daily demand, Paul also suggests that the high quality engineers of the company are a major reason for its success. Employing engineers with a passion for creating new solutions and the ability and experience to do it has been crucial. Though the process is scientific and backed by theory, it is still ultimately a very creative process that requires engineers to envision new solutions using ever advancing technologies for the ever evolving demands of the manufacturing industry.

“We might be foolish, or not as adverse to risk as some others,” Paul jokes. “Sometimes, you bite off more than you can chew, but of course, after all these years we’ve developed a methodology.”

Discussing industry generally, Paul identifies a polarisation that has taken place over the last thirty years, with the field more than ever dominated by very large corporate entities on one end, and smaller local businesses on the other.

“In the old days, it was an even spread of industries from the very big guys through the small guys where two brothers open a plastics injection shop,” he says. Today though, the middle ground has significantly shrunk, while manufacturing in general has been largely static.

Applied Robotics continues to successfully navigate this landscape, and continues to grow, by providing high quality, innovative solutions to large industries which must continue to innovate and automate to remain competitive in today’s global marketplace.

“We see ourselves as being able to provide the automation that industry demands. Presently, their formula to survival is to ‘innovate and to automate’. Once they’ve innovated, we can automate the manufacturing process so that the product they sell will be competitive through automation; that’s how we fit in.”

Of course, Applied Robotics must offer its clients a certain amount of security during the development of new technology, so some major ongoing projects which will introduce brand new technology to the industry must remain outside the scope of this article, though the company has dozens of examples of the work it has created in the past that speaks for itself, including being chosen by the Norwegian government, out of international developers, to look at the feasibility of automating a great percentage of the country’s major furniture and upholstery industry.

Because Norway saw the potential loss of a great deal of the industry to lower labour cost factories internationally, the country determined that 42 per cent of the process had to be automated in order to remain competitive. Applied Robotics was able to create solutions to address this need in the areas of sewing, stuffing, and foam cutting, creating a leaner, more competitive manufacturing solution. Though the project is currently on hold due to the financial climate of Europe, Applied Robotics was able to develop impressive leading edge technology that the company hopes to provide for the country in the future.

As for the future, Applied Robotics believes that established manufacturers will continue to thrive in Australia and the company will continue to develop automation technologies that will help manufacturers remain competitive against import competition. “We have very strong connections and project work with a lot of these companies, so in the medium term of five to ten years we will be quite involved and busy with these groups.”

Ultimately, expansion into overseas markets is also a possibility in markets such as China as international labour costs continue to rise with populations becoming more affluent. “There are opportunities then, to be involved in those markets as well,” suggests Paul “but we are reluctant to do this as our loyalty is to our local customer base.”

Ultimately, it is Applied Robotics’ dedication to creating new, bespoke solutions for the manufacturing industry, and its broad reach across industry sectors that has built such longevity and a reputation for being the best in the business. Whether creating automation in the food sector, medical field, or heavy manufacturing, Applied Robotics endeavours to create one of a kind, game-changing solutions.

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December 16, 2018, 6:43 AM AEDT