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Australia steers path to robotics and automation excellence

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews commends Australian industry for being world-renowned for advances in robotics research. She believes that robots and autonomous systems are unlocking new value and supporting industries such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing to grow the economy and workforce.

“Australia has globally recognised and established research strengths in a number of areas, in particular machine learning and robotics.

“To maximise the benefits of Industry 4.0 technologies in growing the economy and creating jobs, the liberal national government is supporting stronger industry-research collaboration, a skilled workforce and adoption of advanced technologies and business models by companies,” said Andrews.

These collaborations include funding for CSIRO worth $843.7 million in the 2018-19 financial year –  an increase of $40.1 million from the 2017-18 financial year.

But, some say while Australia may be doing well to adapt robotics in general, there is room for improvement – particularly when it comes to small businesses.

Universal Robots ANZ general manager, Peter Hern, said larger manufacturers in Australia have adopted Industry 4.0 capabilities well, but growth is needed within small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

“The large manufacturers see major benefits in being able to have the interconnected ability of Industry 4.0 and the value of the data. They can make quick decisions.

“The area that needs the most attention is the SMEs who have been slow to adopt Industry 4.0,” he said.

Hern explained that helping SMEs would help Australia as a whole, as many large manufacturers are moving offshore.

“SMEs don’t always see the value they can gain out of it. It comes down to education.

“If they are provided with the education and the value of Industry 4.0, for example improved time to market, reduced costs, traceability with ISO standards, they’d be more likely to adopt it,” said Hern.

The fear for many SMEs can be the presumption that they need to implement extensive changes all at once, which Hern said is not the case.

“What they don’t realise is that they can take baby steps. In the first instance, it’s about getting interconnection and engaging the value of that within their manufacturing facility.

“It’s a matter of understanding how relatively easy it is to gain that connectivity.”

Connecting machines can be a quick and easy way to access data, implement preventative maintenance plans and increase productivity, which are steps that can be taken by all manufacturers no matter the size of their business, Hern explained.

“By using robotics and automation in general, it makes small businesses more competitive. They can improve their time to market and provide a better service.”

Helping employees grow

A PwC Managing the People and Change Aspects of Implementing Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in the Workforce report explained that while technological innovation makes some job roles redundant, it creates new jobs and changes the nature of existing ones.

The report stated that although RPA can cause economic and employment disruption, especially for lower-order tasks, this disruption does not necessarily equate to unemployment. PwC suggested that businesses help their employees prepare for this technological disruption by educating employees on the benefits, impacts, use and limitations of RPA.

Some of the key steps of adopting RPA into operational processes include collaborating with employees to identify all possible affected workflows, communicating with staff about the benefits and limitations of RPA, training staff in the new skillsets, and monitoring employee feedback and behaviour post-deployment for continual improvement and reinforcement of the process changes.

Hern said by implementing robotics and automation, companies are increasing their business capabilities.

“It doesn’t displace the person. They are able to redeploy the workers into more productive and more satisfying roles.”

Most of Universal Robots’ customers talk about employing more people as their business grows when they improve their systems with robotics, Hern explained.

“With collaborative robots, it’s a very cost-effective way to improve a manufacturing facility. The customers are seeing a return on investment (ROI) within less than 12 months. It’s not like it was in years before, where implementing robotics was hundreds-and-thousands-of-dollars.”

He said SMEs are able to flourish in Australia as the large overheads associated with automation are changing.

“Rather than automation being the realm of major manufacturers, it’s coming into the picture for small manufacturers.”

Giving SMEs a push

In the announcement of the Australian Budget 2019-20, the federal government indicated it will increase support for new apprentices entering the workforce. With more funding, allocation could go some way to helping SMEs gain better access to skilled workers as well as hiring people that can help push Industry 4.0 growth.

Over four years from 2019-20, $44m will be allocated to a new Streamlined Incentives Program – aimed at making it easier for employers to take on an apprentice or trainee. The program will be responsive to industry and national skills needs with a streamlined payment structure and eligibility criteria, underpinned by a forward-looking National Skills Priority List.

Over the next four years, $156.3m will also be allocated to a new Additional Identified Skills Shortage Payment for employers and apprentices in the top 10 occupations where there is a demonstrated need for increased apprenticeship commencements and where the primary entry pathway into the occupation is through an apprenticeship.

This specifically targets new workers to grow the number of apprentices in training to meet future workforce needs. The new program is expected to support up to 80,000 new commencements over the entire years of operation.

To further support SMEs, the federal government is increasing the instant asset write-off threshold to $30,000 and expanding access to medium-sized businesses with an annual turnover of less than $50m. The government anticipates that these changes will benefit about 3.4 million businesses employing about 7.7 million workers.

This along with government support for further research in robotics is hoped to push the industry as a whole further over the line of excellence in robotics and automation.

Financial support for research

With the funding given to CSIRO over the years, the federal government is showing a vested interest in building up Industry 4.0 in Australia by supporting projects such as a new CSIRO Robotics Innovation Centre in Queensland.

In March, CSIRO Data61 announced the opening of a purpose-built research facility for robotics and autonomous systems, which expands on its current infrastructure.

Minister Andrews said the development of this sector will lead to the creation of new businesses, as well as helping existing businesses evolve, which will create jobs and grow the economy.

A recent report by AlphaBeta Advisors, The Automation Advantage, noted that automation presented a $2.2 trillion opportunity if Australia manages the journey towards the new economy seamlessly with workers transitioning successfully to new activities.

The report indicated that as automation reduces routine and manual work, jobs will become safer, more satisfying and more valuable.

According to the report, workplace injuries will fall by 11 per cent as dangerous manual tasks become automated. It also indicated that 62 per cent of low-skilled workers will experience improved satisfaction, and wages for non-automatable work will be 20 per cent higher than for automatable work.

Andrews said the Australian government recognises the value of the country’s science, research and technology sectors to achieve greater success in robotics and automation.

CSIRO’s Data61 robotics and autonomous systems group leader Fred Pauling said Australia has long championed innovation in the manufacturing and mining sector, using advanced exploration and mining technology, including autonomous trucks, 3D mapping and situational awareness monitoring systems.

“Here, a thriving export industry could flourish, with opportunities to develop technology relevant for industries ranging from resources to space exploration.

“The mining sector is quite advanced in the adoption of cyberphysical technology, driven by harsh environments and remote operations, but there are still significant opportunities in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors,” said Pauling.

“It is important to understand that Industry 4.0 refers to the creation of new business models, enabled by integrated value chains that are supported by cyberphysical systems infrastructure.

“The specific requirements of the Australian Agriculture and Manufacturing sectors, such as small companies and a distributed supply chain, demand low cost, flexible and dependable solutions and this is a research focus for CSIRO’s Robotics Group and other organisations in Australia,” he said.

The Robotics Innovation Centre is connected into other national-level robotics initiatives such as the Sixth Wave Alliance and the proposed Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Hub.

The facility will support CSIRO’s robotics and autonomous systems research to extend capabilities across legged robots, 3D mapping, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), industrial safety, the Internet of Things (IoT) and more.

“By expanding our research facilities, we have enhanced our capabilities to develop highly autonomous robotics systems that can interact safely with humans, in even the most challenging environments on earth,” said Pauling.

“The Robotics Innovation Centre will facilitate unprecedented collaboration across sectors to develop the latest innovations ready to transform industries, and ultimately help boost our economy.

“A major goal of the centre is to connect SME’s, research and development organisations and operators in order to accelerate the translation of R&D to impact,” Pauling explained.

The facility is an expansion of Data61’s robotics research infrastructure at its Pullenvale, Queensland site and is the base for some of Australia’s leading robotics research.

“Collaboration between industry, government and academia is critical to develop world-class robotics and autonomous systems research and development,” said Pauling.

Growing Industry 4.0 capabilities in Australia is an area that many manufacturers are moving to rapidly as they take up advanced manufacturing. National Manufacturing Week (NMW) exhibition director Robby Clark said Industry 4.0 has and continues to receive a lot of attention.

National Manufacturing Week exhibition director Robby Clark.

“What has changed in my view in the last few years, is a shift from being a buzzword, to being the next industrial revolution. This means, across many industry sectors and companies, it’s moved from an idea or concept to actually bringing technologies, processes and strategies that leverage these technological advances to fruition.

“We’ve seen this heavily in manufacturing, where advanced manufacturing has meant engineering, hi-tech and highly integrated solutions are now required to achieve success. Over the same period, NMW has naturally also followed this evolution and it’s evident across the exhibition, especially in the specialised product zones of automation and robotics, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and the conference program with a dedicated Industrial 4.0 stream,” said Clark.

Robotics and automation outlook

Automation has been a growing trend across industrial sectors, according to Clark.

But he said it’s the integration of robotics within automated processes that’s providing manufacturers with faster, more productive and efficient operations.

“For manufacturing professionals, it’s an incredibly dynamic zone from a visual perspective because of how engaging even the simplest of actions are when performed by a robot or automated arm.

“Advanced manufacturing is where the industry will continue to grow and develop,” said Clark.

That integration of robots takes a step further when talking to Hern from Universal Robots. He said Universal Robots has seen a shift from industrial robots to collaborative robots, known as cobots, which Hern expects to continue trending in  the manufacturing industry.

“There’s going to be a significant uptake in cobots. Small robots are very space and cost efficient.

“We are seeing a 40-50 per cent compound annual growth rate.”

Be it cobots or a robot that can help an automated system function better, Australia is seeing growth in Industry 4.0.

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