Man and Machine

Robotic Manufacturing Down Under

CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world. It recently published a white paper on the topic of Lightweight Assistive Manufacturing Solutions which it hopes will stimulate thinking and debate about the way forward for manufacturing in Australia and help the sector to become more sustainable.

This is being necessarily written in the run-up to one of the most contentious federal elections in history. A big issue, and one that continues to divide the readership of Business in Focus, is whether there is a future for ‘manufacturing’ in Australia. Despite the fact that half of the companies we talk to still make things and market them with evident success, the other half contend that “manufacturing is dead in the water – it’s too expensive here.”

There are indeed a number of recurring themes in the native pessimism. Certainly cost – partly related to dollar exchange rates, partly to labour costs – is one factor. The small size of the domestic market as compared to, say, the UK or the US, is another as is geographical isolation from export markets and a shortage of people with appropriate skills. But obviously some companies do overcome these and other handicaps and manufacture – and in many cases export – with conspicuous success.

Manufacturing’s position in the economy can be seen in many ways. For example, in Australia, the manufacturing industry has grown in absolute terms over the last twenty-five years and is responsible for one third of industry exports. It was also the second biggest contributor of business expenditure on research and development in 2011 (according to the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, 2012). However, its contribution to the country’s GDP has declined by four per cent in the last twelve years. In 2000 manufacturing was the top sector, but it has been overtaken by the services, mining and construction sectors.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) takes the view that the manufacturing industry remains an important employment source and a vital contributor to the Australian economy. It boosts other sectors such as mining and services and, across the Australian business sector, is the main source of technological innovation. “This creates national need to increase the global competitiveness of Australian manufacturing firms to produce high-value offerings in a cost-effective way. This, in turn, requires a highly productive, well-skilled workforce equipped with the appropriate tools to revitalise productive performance.”

Lightweight Assistive Manufacturing Solutions (LAMS) mean more robotics, to be used in a way that helps humans rather than replaces them. Current robotic systems (one thinks immediately of the kind that operate in car plants, for example, applying glue to windscreens and placing them with micron-accuracy) tend to be useful only in large applications and are aimed at speeding up mass-production tasks. But, CSIRO argues, Australia in particular has a “disproportionate number of small firms (86 per cent), many of which operate in small markets.” These too should be able to take advantage of what robotics can do for them.

Specifically, that means three areas: worker augmentation systems, robotic co-workers and tele-supervised robots.

Worker augmentation systems “provide virtual augmentation to the worker during a production, assembly or quality phase by enhancing their ability to do their job”. One example of a worker augmentation system is a virtual headset called ReMote, currently being tested by industry. “Using a head-mounted camera the wearer (worker) is able to beam what he or she can see to anyone (expert/helper) in a remote location. The helper is then able to project their hand gestures onto whatever the worker is looking at and virtually show them how to fix an issue or conduct a repair.”

Systems like this one can enhance “workforce capabilities, such as skills, perception, strength and data-processing capacity, to make them capable of fabricating high-quality products in a faster and more efficient manner, regardless of their age or physical conditions. This is also an ideal solution to retain experienced elder workers as well as maintaining a skilled labour force capable of dealing with new product fabrication and incorporating changes rapidly and with fewer errors.” Such systems aim at cost-effectiveness and may be used in situations that do not demand long runs.

The robotic co-workers are “capable of collaborating with and assisting humans on manufacturing tasks in the form of mobile assistants, semi-autonomous manipulators and robot helpers, are intended to be used by firms seeking to introduce a degree of automation to their short-run manufacturing processes.” The objective here is to increase productivity, but by enabling workers to respond to differing demands, using “collaborative robots that provide their human partner with machine capabilities but are directly controlled by the human worker” so both work together, harnessing “the strength, speed and precision of robots and the flexibility, creativity and reasoning of humans.”

In the third area, tele-supervised robotics aims to automate processes that can be dangerous and insulate humans from risk. The CSIRO paper explains: “Automation that extends the reach of the workforce is ideally suited to firms that deal with challenging manufacturing or production conditions as a result of hazardous operational environments or distance/time constraints. This solution exploits the benefits of the above technologies by placing the worker safely away from the operational manufacturing function to now supervise the manufacturing process. This also provides scalability across a number of work cells and across a number of sites. Furthermore, this unique solution provides a new option to increase labour productivity and operational efficiency.” The emerging science of building management systems is a case in point – a control room in Perth can efficiently monitor an office block in Brisbane, turning the HVAC on and off, arranging servicing for a faulty lift or calling the fire brigade in an emergency.

CSIRO says that LAMS will effectively reinvent manufacturing in Australia. It will “directly support Australian manufacturers in addressing international market opportunities and in growing revenues from domestic markets.” There will be a massive impact on the work force too, but this is intended to be largely beneficial. LAMS will “facilitate humans’ work in factories, resulting in jobs with more high-value tasks and [fewer] repetitive and physically demanding activities such as weight lifting and tool picking.” Increased productivity and price-competitiveness will lead to expansion and that will mean more jobs, the paper confidently predicts.

For the business community, LAMS has the potential to give small and medium sized businesses, “fit-for-purpose technology and prepare them for future challenges in a highly dynamic globalised industry; restoring manufacturing activities back to Australia as it will be cost-efficient to produce certain parts domestically; and bringing cohesion and interconnectedness to the industry through the use of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) solutions on top of complementary infrastructure” such as the National Broadband Network.

It sounds like a dream, but the authors of the white paper believe this really could be the future. CSIRO business development manager Dr Peter Kambouris comments: “Industrial automation used in manufacturing today is limited, but developments in ICT and robotics present Australia with an opportunity to change the way we manufacture. CSIRO believes lightweight robotics and advanced ICT systems are one way of meeting this challenge.” Strange but true: non-breathing robots could be about to breathe new life into Australia’s stressed manufacturing sector.

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?

December 19, 2018, 5:32 PM AEDT