(Click here to view article in digital edition)
The scheme is being implemented in association with the US trade body, Robot Industries Association (RIA), which has been running its own successful scheme in recent years.
The aim of BARA is to promote the use of; and assist in the development of industrial robots and automation in British industry. By launching a certification scheme for robot integrators, BARA is hoping to improve the technical capabilities of integrators and ultimately enhance UK manufacturing. To fully appreciate the advantages of an integrator certification scheme, it is vital to understand the current state of automation in the UK.
Automation anarchy in the UK
As has been widely discussed, the UK’s level of automation is poor – particularly when compared to similarly sized economies and other G7 nations. When looking at robot sales in the UK from 2008-2018 (Table 1), it can be seen that sales actually decreased by 15% in 2018 when compared to 2017. Chairman of BARA, Mike Wilson, sees this as particularly disappointing considering the recent upward trend. Robot sales are often dictated by what the automotive industry is doing, but even when looking at non-automotive robot sales, there is still a 13% decrease in sales from 2017 to 2018 (Table 2). Mike says this could well be down to Brexit and companies delaying their investments until things have settled down both economically and politically, but it is unlikely to be the only reason.
Mike says that one reason for the decrease in sales and the general reluctance to invest in robotics is the UK’s focus on low cost labour from overseas. For this reason, together with the general perception that automating is particularly difficult, the UK’s productivity is not as good as others. At the moment however, the relatively low cost workers are beginning to return to their countries of origin where the economies are growing and wages are on the rise. This means that an alternative to low cost labour is required – which Mike believes to be automation.
The news is not all bad however; there is in fact plenty of opportunity for automation in the UK. The government has developed an Industrial Strategy which has led to the Made Smarter programme. The programme launched a North West pilot late last year and supports manufacturing companies in implementing Industry 4.0 technologies. If the scheme is successful, it is hoped to be rolled out across the UK. Made Smarter identified that Industry 4.0 could be worth over £450bn to the UK economy over the next 10 years, of which £180bn will be contributed by robotics and automation, highlighting its potential. With the government’s investment plans and tax returns on buying industrial equipment, it is currently more economical than ever to invest in automation.
A major issue is that the UK is adopting significantly fewer robots in comparison to its European competitors. Europe is currently installing 18% more robots than the UK, with China purchasing more than anyone else and South Korea having the highest robot density. Mike believes the UK is the oddball that is not following the same automation path as everyone else – a major hindrance to the UK's manufacturing competitiveness.
The rise of the cobots
Collaborative robots – or cobots – have seen increased interest in recent years. They are relatively easy to apply, easy to use and work in tandem with a human meaning they are safer and don’t need to operate behind safety cages. This has led to great interest from UK manufacturing companies, especially those looking to automate applications where human intervention is needed and smaller batch sizes are being dealt with. Cobots are certainly appropriate in some cases, but they are not the answer to everything.
A key aspect of cobots is that they are user installed and an integrator is not required. However, this can lead to unsafe applications as some users will install a cobot without doing an appropriate risk assessment. Companies should not be making the assumption that just because a robot is collaborative does not mean it is safe. Industrial robots on the other hand do require an integrator due to the surrounding safety and control systems. Despite the increased interest in cobots, industrial robots still have a place in manufacturing, especially for higher volume applications and dangerous or arduous tasks.
A major benefit resulting from interest in cobots is the rising interest in robotics in general with companies starting to think more about how and where they can apply automation. However, there are currently some constraints on the UK’s supply chain. The low number of robots being sold in the UK has resulted in a lack of system integrators and so the ones we do have, especially the good ones, are particularly busy.
On top of the small supply chain, Mike suggests another problem is that end users lack the necessary knowledge to install robotic applications safely. Mike is often invited to factories and is asked by end users where they can use robots, the best applications to start on and who to talk to in order to get a robot system installed. This means many end users are unable to produce specifications which can be quite dangerous because if the end user doesn’t tell a system integrator precisely what they are after, the chances are that the integrator won’t deliver what the end user actually wants. The ability to provide specifications is therefore vital.
When it comes to cobots, it is likely the end user won’t know all the required safety standards or how to do a risk assessment. End users may also not be good at selecting a quality supplier which ultimately means an unsafe application is going out into UK manufacturing. The aim of BARA is to therefore educate through the publication of guides, providing access to independent consultants and collaborating with other organisations so that end users can go to experts for help with their automation woes. The latest step in BARA’s education programme is the launch of the UK’s first robot integrator certification scheme.
Certified robot integrators
The BARA Certified Robot Integrator Programme is all about identifying good system integrators, according to Mike. The programme is based on the RIA’s model in the US which was originally developed with input from both end users and system integrators. Mike says that the intent is to help integrators demonstrate their capabilities as well as help end users find the best and most suitable integrators. The overall intention is to drive up quality as integrator companies will strive to achieve the certification by acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills.
An important element of the programme is the on-site audit where auditors are sent to integrators to check the capabilities of their technical experts. To achieve the certification, an integrator must have at least two technical experts who have the required expertise of safety standards and are able to perform risk assessments on all systems. Audits are undertaken by qualified personnel from the Manufacturing Technology Centre who have themselves been checked by RIA to ensure that BARA meets the standards of the existing programme.
Once an integrator gains certification, it gets a logo that can be applied to all marketing material and identifies them as being certified. Certification is limited to 2 years when the process must be repeated. This is to ensure the integrator is up-to-date with all industry standards and continues to meet the requirements since the technical experts may have moved on from the company.
Mike hopes that the programme will ultimately generate momentum towards increased automation in the UK. Capable system integrators will be able to distinguish themselves in the market and be able to improve their technical capabilities. End users will also benefit by being able to select qualified and appropriate integrators – not just for one project, but as part of a long term, ongoing relationship. As more integrators become certified, more will want to become approved which will ultimately lead to better quality integrators and more integrators in general offering more appropriate and quality solutions to end users.
Work smarter, not harder
Quality solutions will keep end users happy who will in turn achieve greater returns and be more likely to invest in further automation. This domino effect will eventually help increase the amount of robots in the UK as well as greatly lower the number of unsafe applications.
Mike feels that UK manufacturing needs to work smarter, not harder. The workforce needs to be given the correct tools to be more efficient, competitive and therefore grow. The key thing is that industry needs to change and automation can be the answer to its woes. This is why the industry needs a certified integrator programme and hopefully it can help kick start the UK’s automation revolution.
Companies wishing to gain certification under the new BARA scheme will be able to download an application form from April 2019 at www.bara.org.uk
Print this page | E-mail this page
Discover the future of engineering today
Download a copy of our digital magazine