Why robotics is important for mechanical engineering
Robotics offers enormous opportunities for mechanical engineering. Thanks to this technology, the manufacturing industry in countries across the world will be able to react optimally to new challenges that arise from the increasing customisation requirements of end users, strong international competition and our crisis-ridden environment in general. The advantages of robotics in mechanical engineering include:
- Robots are not (at least directly) affected by the consequences of pandemics or staff shortages of any other kind.
- Robots can be deployed around the clock.
- Robots can at least partly compensate for the shortage of skilled workers.
- Robots are cost-effective in the long term, which, in view of tight supply chains, creates the intriguing possibility of bringing production capacities back to the nearshoring sector.
- Robots can be used flexibly for different tasks.
- Thanks to artificial intelligence, robots can independently take over and automate many processes.
They offer significant potential for optimisation, which in turn results in cost savings. They promise a decisive advantage on the international market.
Risks for mechanical engineering in the UK, and beyond
Mechanical engineering increasingly needs artificial workers in order to improve response and keep costs competitive. After all, advancing digitalisation and global crises have changed the rules of the game. Ten years or so ago, issues like the shift in demand to countries outside Europe prevailed, but today the focus has turned to other areas. The current issues of concern in mechanical engineering are the scarcity of semiconductors, sensitive supply chains and high energy prices.
This makes it difficult to generate sales and profits from orders. Although these adverse conditions are improving, they will continue to preoccupy the machine engineering industry going forward.
Strong competition for the robotics industry
According to Statista, around 517,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide in 2021, and the numbers are only rising. Global sales are expected to grow to 690,000 units a year by 2025.
Another indicator of demand is the number of robots per 10,000 employees. On average, this value has risen to 141 robots globally. This is shown by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) World Robotics 2022 Report. IFR President Marina Bill says, “That's more than twice as many units as six years ago.”
Many want to be part of the boom. Robotics Outlook 2030: How Intelligence and Mobility Will Shape the Future lists more than 500 companies in the robotics industry worldwide. According to study author Ralph Lässig, Partner and Associate Director, Head of the Center for Digital in Machinery at the Boston Consulting Group, sales of the technology are expected to increase to between 160 and 260 billion US dollars by 2030.
This is a promising outlook for mechanical engineering, both as an industry and as a robotics provider. However, an international, rounded sales comparison (2021) of the seven largest producers shows that manufacturers in the UK have some catching up to do. Of the seven biggest players, none come from the UK. The top seven at this time are:
- Mitsubishi Electric (Japan): 9.6 billion euros
- ABB Robotics (Switzerland): 5.5 billion euros
- Kawasaki Heavy Industries (Japan): 2.0 billion euros
- Fanuc (Japan): 1.6 billion euros
- Yaskawa (Japan): 1.4 billion euros
- Kuka Robotics (Germany): 1.0 billion euros
- Dürr AG (Germany): 0.5 billion euros
The competition could intensify further, as China wants to enter the market on a large scale. According to the current five-year plan (no. 14), the government in Beijing intends to make China the leading producer of industrial robots.
Courses of action for the industry
Mechanical engineering around the world has a lot of promise thanks to robotics. But in order to leverage it, there are some hurdles to overcome, especially with regard to the major goal of the Smart Factory or Smart Production, where multiple processes are automated. The focus is on the following fields of action.
- All smart components need a uniform communication standard in order to exchange data with each other. Ideally, they will be able to communicate across the entire supply chain.
- The central element of communication should be a cloud in which all relevant information is consolidated and to which both internal and external stakeholders have access.
- Robots and IT systems must work closely together and “learn” in both directions, requiring a large number of suitable interfaces on both sides.
- For robots to act as flexibly as possible, they need sensors that provide them with impressions from their environment. This applies, for example, to touch, vision and the robot’s determination of its own position (navigation).
- Human-robot collaboration (cobots) is becoming increasingly important. Among other factors, this means the machines adapting flexibly to the needs of their human colleagues.
- In addition to permanently installed robots, the demand for mobile variants which can, to a great extent, move freely in their environment will increase.
- In future, many of the issues mentioned above will require a greater reliance on smart technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Small and medium-sized companies in mechanical engineering – including robot manufacturers – also have to address these challenges. This works best in cooperation, which means entering into partnerships or joining research networks. This is the only way of rising to the challenge of changing market conditions.
How to prepare your company for the future
There’s no doubt about it: the future of mechanical engineering definitely lies in robotics. Even today, it’s hard to imagine production without automation. And due to predicted advances in terms of lower production costs and mechanical material properties, future areas of application will become increasingly favourable.
In order to prepare for the implementation of robotics in mechanical engineering, companies should pay attention to these aspects.
- At the outset, they should determine which areas are to be equipped with robots.
- Then they need a cost plan for the project.
- They also need to clarify to what extent the robotics-supported processes can be integrated into the rest of the workflow.
- The next step is to look at space requirements and the location of the machines.
- It is necessary to check whether the system can be expanded later, or modified if circumstances change.
- In addition, the workforce must be prepared for the deployment of such technology.
The robotics and mechanical engineering industry in the UK needs to start better harnessing the potential of Industry 4.0 immediately. It’s also important to look for appropriately skilled personnel at an early stage: The close dovetailing of IT and electrical engineering with conventional mechanical engineering further restricts the potential field of candidates already affected by the shortage of skilled workers. Early identification of talent and internal training programmes can help with this.