In part 1 of our "Transforming UK Manufacturing" blogs, we discussed how the UK ranks in terms of automation and robotics on a global scale, as well as some of the challenges we face. In this blog, we talk more about current trends, how cobots might be the answer to our problems, the unique challenges the textile industry faces, and why now is a great time to invest in new equipment!
Current trends in the UK
Reshoring - Following on from Brexit and global issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses and customers in the UK are favouring manufacturers closer to home. This alleviates concerns about trade tensions, logistics issues, and increasing transport costs. It is also more environmentally friendly and doesn’t work against net zero as much as manufacturing in Asia for a UK market.
High-quality, low-volume – there is a growing awareness of the impact of “fast fashion” and the throw-away culture in general. More customers are embracing things which are made to last. When simple tasks are automated, it frees workers up to focus on more skilled jobs to create better quality products.
Ease of use – suppliers are making robots much more intuitive to control for increased ease of use, with icon driven programming, manual guidance, and clear visuals. The controls are instinctive and don't require code for programming. They can be up and running straight away, with simple installation making them an out-of-box solution.
What are collaborative robots?
Collaborative robots or “cobots” are designed to work with humans, rather than independently. An example of this is the Universal Robots UR3 robot arms, which we incorporated into our existing Sewbotics systems. Cobots feature advanced sensors for safe cooperation and enhance efficiency by facilitating a harmonious human-robot working relationship without entirely replacing human workers.
Why would a company use cobots?
Adaptability - Cobots, particularly robot arms, are very adaptable and can be reprogrammed or fitted with different attachments to suit changing production requirements. This makes them more of a sound investment for most companies than large industrial robots which are developed for a specific purpose.
Consistency and increased yield – Cobots won’t get tired like human workers would, and they work reliably and consistently without making mistakes. They also don’t need to take holidays!
Improving jobs – Using cobots reduces the number of mundane, dirty, or dangerous jobs being done by humans. This frees workers up for more fulfilling roles where their skills add value.
Better use of resources – Cobots provide improved utilization of other equipment and staff. They also minimize damage and breakages considerably when compared to human workers.
Increased productivity - Cobots offer improved competitiveness, you can run extended production hours and make better use of space and energy.
Reduced impact - Cobots have less impact on existing production facilities than industrial robots. They work safely alongside a human workforce, with some human intervention still being required.
Ideal solution for small businesses – Cobots are great for small batch work, they can be installed at user level, which is a huge advantage. Size is irrelevant when the footprint of the robot is so small. There is a company in Sweden which consists of one man and one robot, so there is no business too small to take advantage of automation!
Filling job/skill shortages - There are currently >70,000 vacancies in manufacturing in the UK, so rather than taking jobs from humans, robots will be doing work that humans no longer want to do. This includes jobs which are dirty, dangerous, and otherwise unappealing.
How can automation and robotics be applied to the textile industry?
The textile industry faces unique challenges when it comes to automation and particularly robotics. We provide solutions such as conveyorized sewing machines and CNC cutters for standard applications, but our Sewbotics projects have to be approached in a different way for the following reasons:
Most fabric is not stable - Many materials stretch, pucker, fold, and crease, particularly when being sewn. This is easily registered by a human operator who can make changes accordingly, but it presents more of a challenge for robots! This means that robots are better suited to sewing more stable materials such as leather or felt.
The application needs to be 2D - Anything which can be fitted into a jig and sewn on a flat surface is easy to automate. Something more complex which requires a cylinder bed machine, for example, adding cuffs to clothing, would be almost impossible for robots to sew with consistent results.
Robots aren’t as dextrous as humans – Robots simply can’t compete with human sewers when it comes to the majority of applications. This is why cobots are ideal, they can work alongside humans to cover the tedious and repetitive jobs.
Why is now a good time to invest in automation or robotics?
It’s currently a great time to invest in new equipment, conditions are ideal with the UK government wanting to encourage more businesses to embrace automation, digital technologies, and robotics in manufacturing. R&D tax credits are available, and there are many funding and financing schemes to help companies get started. Being behind the rest of the world also means that the tech is proven, and we know it works! We can learn from the experiences of other countries and follow their example.
Labour shortages and supply chain issues are the main driving forces for companies beginning to embrace automation. By working smarter, rather than harder, we can give businesses the tools to be competitive in the global manufacturing market!
We’ve always been advocates for automation, embracing the philosophy that if you aren’t moving forwards, you’re moving backwards! Sewbotics is the branch of our company which focuses on the development of textile cobot solutions using Universal Robots arms. Customers come to us with a production process they’d like us to automate, and our team of technicians design the equipment around it. The beauty of Cobots is that they are versatile and can be adapted to many different applications. Once the end goal is identified, we can get started!
Contact us directly to find out more and learn how we can develop a bespoke solution for your business.