Industrial Automation Solutions

John Hart Automation & Robotics

John Hart Automation & Robotics is passionate about increasing Australia’s manufacturing competitiveness. John Hart are working with local manufacturing businesses to improve operations by providing automation systems and Fanuc robots. The company is an agent for Fanuc of Japan – probably one of if not the biggest robot manufacturers in the world.

It would not be fair to describe John Hart as ‘simply’ a distributor for Fanuc. “We are a system integrator as well,” says Simon Hales. “We are the Australia and New Zealand agent for the Fanuc handling robots (as opposed to welding robots) but the majority of our work derives from the integration of the robots themselves” into the production line or other relevant environment. “We offer our customers everything up to a full turnkey solution where we come in and design, build, program and commission a full system.”

Operations Manager Simon Hales explains that Fanuc’s production is geared more toward the conventional industrial-style robot rather than the new breed of lightweight units, although John Hart also has an agency for Barrett Technologies’ advanced robotic arms and hands that supplies the kind of unit that the CSIRO had in mind with its recent paper promoting Lightweight Assistive Manufacturing Solutions and the wider adoption of robots (see Man and Machine, in this issue). “The distinction is that with industrial robots there is generally no direct interaction with humans,” explains Simon.

John Hart deals in most industries, but has largely moved away from working with the larger automotive supplies, and toward the medical, mining, composite and other sectors. The company does remain active with the tier-one suppliers to the car industry such as Chassis brakes international, the innovative braking manufacturer based in Melbourne, and Bendix.

Simon is keen to stress that just about any process industry can improve its efficiency with the help of robots – not just those industries where the volumes are very high or the jobs very heavy. He believes that, despite the fact these nodding multi-armed machines have been around for many years now, there is still quite a lot of education needed. “I think it is fair to say that a lot of the customers we get involved with do not have any automation at all so there is an educative process to go through with the customer to help them better understand what can be achieved with the use of automation and robotics.”

Some of these uses can come as a surprise to clients, not least because they tend to think of processes in the way you would perform them manually. But, “quite often when you come to consider automation you can completely transform the processes from what currently takes place,” says Simon. Perhaps the robot can perform more than one task at a time; perhaps the strength of a robot can transform the operations required. “Often there are a lot of elements that we can refine in the processes. Particularly in the way we communicate and the processes we go through, there is a big difference between a customer who already has experience of robotics and one who hasn’t.”

Customers have a variety of reasons for considering automation – not always the right ones – and sometimes would-be customers are put off by a perception that robotics may be more expensive than they actually are, says Simon. He often speaks to people who wildly over-estimate what a robot installation might cost and equally often underestimate the savings available. He also points out that the issue of robotics is not and should not be tied to that of headcount and ‘replacing’ humans with machines. “In many cases there are people who have simply ruled out robotics and automation because they think it is too expensive. It’s only when you open up the conversation that you can explain how prices have come right down,” particularly in comparison to the features available with the latest generation of robots.

In any case, he says, the price of the robot itself represents but a fraction of the equation. “In most cases you will spend more on the overall system elements than on the actual robotics.” On the plus side, the robotic process may not necessarily be faster, but it doesn’t taper off or require lunch or comfort breaks. Repeatability and reliability are much improved. “There is a major push these days to get robots into areas where they can be much more flexible in the applications they can be involved with – vision systems, for example – instead of just making a single part repeatedly for high volume applications. People want a robot system but they also want to be able to change the robot to make different parts daily or even hourly, or for very small batch runs.”

Indeed, the newest robots can handle much more complex runs, so for example where a line is dealing with substantially similar items with small differences per item, the robot can nowadays do its job – even down to one-off runs. “People are looking for much more flexible and intelligent systems,” Simon shares, rather than a simple mass production role for their automation.

In fact many businesses of all types, large and small, new and old, are searching increasingly desperately for ways to reduce costs and improve efficiency, looking in many cases for a way to simply survive in today’s competitive environments. There is also a drive to look for safer ways of making things – which meshes with lower costs, and robotics can help by enabling a company to remove a human from a dangerous environment, or perhaps reduce or remove work-in-progress. “In many instances we have installed automated systems that have massively reduced work-in-progress for a company, reducing stocks and inventory, keeping less of finished product and enabling them to react faster to their customers’ needs. There are many reasons why people are considering automation.”

The relationship between John Hart and Fanuc stems originally from the latter company’s superiority in CNC controllers (the Japanese giant is the largest CNC supplier in the world and one of the originators of NC controls in general) and the Australian company’s decision to extend into automation systems from there nearly 30 years ago. “Fanuc approaches the market in a slightly different way to other manufacturers,” says Simon. All the robots are made in Japan (at the company’s headquarters at the foot of Mount Fuji). “They focus heavily on how they can add value to their customers with the systems and on what they class as intelligent systems. They are the only supplier of robots to have their own vision systems – 2D, 2.5D and 3D – and their own area scanning systems. They have force sensors, inbuilt PLCs,” Simon explains. Fanuc as a supplier is focused on the ease of programming and inbuilt systems rather than relying on third-party systems that have to be developed each time. Thus for a vision system there is no need for an additional PLC or computer to run it – it’s built in to the robot controller. Fanuc invests heavily in Research and Development and in many cases are the first to offer new features to the industry. Demand for Fanuc robots has resulted in a need to build a new factory completed in 2012, doubling the capacity.

Simon suggests that this is more significant to a potential buyer than simply the price ticket. “More important is the ease of use of Fanuc’s products and the features they offer,” he says. The robot itself is in many ways little more than just a handling device and in many ways these days a robot is a commodity; they more or less all offer the basics and, like cars these days, they are all pretty reliable (and one of the reasons cars are more reliable these days is because they are built using robots). The secret, and what makes the difference between a good one and the best one is often in how it is deployed; ease of use and maximum in-line efficiency. That is the value-adding that Simon referred to and that is what John Hart offers – automatically – to customers in just about every kind of production-related process.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

June 22, 2018, 5:13 PM AEST