Kuka, headquartered in Augsburg, Germany is one of the leading manufacturers of robotic systems worldwide and believes that within the next 10 years robots will be essential in any composites manufacturing site.
Amanda Jacob asked Philipp Kremer, Kuka Market Segment Manager Plastic, about the future of automation in composites manufacturing for Inside Composites.
Inside Composites: Compared with processors of other materials how well are composites manufacturing companies embracing automation techniques?
Philipp Kremer: Hardly any other industry is characterised by such short product life cycles and such great component complexity. In recent years the proportion of automation in the plastics processing industry (which includes composites in Kuka’s statistics) has risen continuously to match the increasing complexity of the products. The degree of integration of plastics machines is rising in parallel, with each machine performing ever more process steps. Thus in 2015 the number of robotic solutions in the plastics sector grew by 40% (excluding the automobile sector, where the degree of automation is already high). Automation within the industry – which comprises primarily medium-sized companies – is quite advanced when compared to other branches of industry.
IC: What kind of companies does Kuka work with in the composites industry and how are they using automation?
PK: Kuka works with numerous companies in the composites industry. Among them are mainly small and mid-sized system integrators, but also big players in automotive, energy production or aerospace which work with composites. They are using linear gantries or multi-axis industrial robots, or both, in plastics production and processing.
IC: What are the particular automation challenges for composites manufacturers and what technologies is Kuka developing to address these?
PK: More than ever before, companies are facing the challenge of integrating robots into their manufacturing and processing systems as quickly and as easily as possible. As a result, the development of ready-to-use solutions is the latest automation challenge facing system integrators and the robot manufacturers who are actively involved in the sector. Ready-to-use-solutions represent an intelligent combination of Kuka robots, supplementary Kuka products such as Kuka application software and additional essential third-party components. They are specifically tailored to applications and can therefore be used ‘out of the box’ even with little or no pre-existing experience with automation. Another aspect is the further development of robots suitable for human-robot collaboration.
IC: Is automation limited to larger companies? Are there automation solutions which the many small to medium-sized composites companies could afford to implement?
PK: Automation in the past was mostly implemented by large companies. Now, as solutions become more and more easy to integrate and more flexible in their use, robot-based automation becomes more and more relevant for small and mid-sized companies. Given the new opportunities through lightweight robots, sensitive functions, direct human-machine cooperation and other current developments, we see applications to be automated that were not able to be automated ever before.
IC: How do you see the use of automation developing in the composites industry over the next 10-20 years?
PK: In the near future, areas that are currently human labour intensive will reach limits that make automation solutions unavoidable if companies want to satisfy health and safety requirements. Looking towards the future, two further long-term trends that favour the use of jointed-arm robots are clear. The growing shortage of skilled labour in the manufacturing sector means that fewer and fewer skilled workers must control complicated production processes – that requires simplified control for automated complex processes. These requirements in terms of speed, flexibility, profitability and value creation can hardly be met without robot-based automation. Demographic changes will also affect the demand for specific products – for example, in the medical sector. Automation solutions in the plastics processing industry will thus increase in this area as well. Very high efficiency and maximum precision in cleanrooms will determine competitiveness. In 10 years maximum from now, robotics will be an essential and at the same time completely standard asset in any composites manufacturing site.