Although European manufacturers were keen to increase operational efficiency and to return production closer to home markets even before Covid, the actual adoption of automation and robotisation technologies has been harrowing. According to the latest report by the International Federation of Robotics, the European operational stock of industrial robots reached 580,000 units in 2019: although this was an increase of 7% since the previous year, it was far below China's 21%, Japan's 12%, and just on par with the US.
"Europe, as well as the rest of the world, is heading to a new record of operational industrial robot stock in 2020, but these raw numbers tell only one half of the story," explained Torsten Christensen, partner and co-founder at consultancy firm ChangeForce. "In reality, I think the industrial robotics industry is experiencing something we witnessed some 20-25 years ago in the dot-com era: lots of hype coupled with a low return on investment, heavy reliance on third-party integrators and, quite often, complex machines not returning the expected value. I believe European manufacturers, first and foremost the SMEs, should take one step back and rethink their robotization strategies to avoid even larger disappointments."
According to Christensen, the most popular reason behind disappointing robotization implementations is the complexity and over customization of technologies installed. Consequently, such over-engineered solutions are not flexible enough, as manufacturing processes inevitably change over time. They are also too complicated for in-house employees to tune.
"I think it is still much easier to bring a robot into a company than to get any return good out of this investment. Instead of following the hype, manufacturers should focus on return on investment, value, and building competencies. Robots need to solve a business problem to secure return and value. And they should be so in-house competencies are easy to build. The latter is made easier using standard robots."
Christensen is seconded by Thomas Ronlev, CEO at Factobotics, a Danish-Lithuanian maker of standard industrial robots, who unveiled RoboBend, heralded as the world's first standard sheet-metal bending robot, and Flexy-Weld, a unique flexible robot-welding solution, at Hannover Messe Digital Edition this week.
Ronlev said that the risk of robotization failures is further exacerbated by a very high current robotic solutions cost. He added, "European manufacturers often believe their production processes are unique. They are also often convinced that entire production and supply chains be automated. I think that truth is much more down to earth: some processes are indeed ripe for automation, but not all of them, let alone at once. We would see a much higher degree of satisfaction if companies started from simple processes and standard robotic solutions that come at a fraction of the cost and are easy to master. Some of the most successful factories use relatively simple robotics."