Businesses in Malaysia today are plagued with rising costs of raw materials, a shrinking workforce and intensifying competition. To stay ahead of the curve they need to harness advanced technologies, such as robotic automation, as part of their business strategy — a critical success factor as the nation moves towards the fourth industrial revolution.
However, many business owners have preconceived notions that robots are complex, require high maintenance and are only used in large-scale productions. Fortunately, these notions no longer stand true.
Breakthroughs in technology have brought forth a new generation of industrial robots which are designed to work alongside humans. These collaborative robots — or cobots — have made it significantly easier and more affordable for small and medium-sized business owners to automate even the simplest of processes across a wide range of industries, and enjoy the resulting benefits.
Cobots: The Way Forward
Adopting cobots is a viable business option due to the multitude of benefits they present. They are flexible as well as easy to programme and to use; allowing them to be seamlessly integrated into existing applications and easily redeployed to automate different types of processes, if required.
Cobots are also a cost-effective automation solution as they increase overall productivity and operational efficiency without incurring high integration costs. Businesses can also reduce production downtime using cobots, which are able to work around the clock. Their enhanced safety features have also brought man and machine together by allowing humans to work side-by- side with cobots without the need for safety barriers, subject to prior risk assessment.
The use of cobots in automation has paved the way for Malaysian businesses to drive productivity while improving the quality of their products in a cost-effective manner. Nonetheless, robotic automation is still a relatively new concept for some businesses.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, robot deploy- ment in Malaysia has increased by approximately 8% each year between 2010 and 2015. This is far below the global average annual deployment growth rate of 16% — an indication that the country still has a long way to go.
A boost is needed and the Malaysian government’s introduction of incentives to encourage businesses to increase adoption of automation is timely. Recognising the vast potential of innovative automation solutions in spurring labour productivity and boosting the country’s gross domestic product — particularly in the manufacturing and services sectors — the government has rolled out schemes which allow businesses to be reimbursed for automation-related expenditures.
In an emerging market such as Malaysia, such schemes have a far-reaching impact on business owners, helping them to remain competitive in the long run.
Embarking on the Automation Journey
Besides these policies, there are several steps that businesses must take to identify where and how to maximise the benefits from automation.
The journey begins with identifying the long-term business objectives they aim to achieve through the deployment of cobots, such as a decrease in material wastage, reduced production downtime and improved production efficiency. Fundamentally, it is imperative to look beyond short- term benefits to ensure that future gains are also accounted for.
The next step is to identify operational areas that will benefit from automation. Choosing manual processes which are simple and which do not require human dexterity, critical thinking or on-the-spot decision making is a good guide. This includes processes which are repetitive or pose potential danger towards employees. While some business owners may prefer to automate a process which requires minimal alterations to the production line, modifications to other components in the production line may be required in some instances. Deter- mining if any amendments are required is vital to minimise chances of disruption in the production line.
Another key factor business owners should consider is the availability of space, as most small businesses do not have the luxury of large work areas. Due to its ergonomic design, the compact and lightweight cobots can fit into smaller spaces with ease and are certified with safety measures, allowing humans to work in close proximity with the cobots, requiring less floor space.
Set Your Employees Up for Success
Most importantly, business owners need to get their employees on board by highlighting how cobots can help them.
Collaborative in design, these robots serve as an assistive tool which help reduce human errors to ensure consistent output during production. They relieve employees from labour-intensive or potentially dangerous tasks, enabling them to be redeployed for higher value work and giving them the opportunity to upgrade their skillsets.
The ease of deployment and low integration cost of cobots clearly illustrate that barriers to robotic adoption are not significant. To move forward against the headwinds of rising material costs, a contracting working population and increasing competition, it is as crucial as it is easy for businesses to use advanced technologies to their advantage today. Integrating cobots into operational processes not only provide a competitive edge, but also serve as a catalyst for sustainable growth.
- Shermine Gotfredsen is the GM at Universal Robots, South-East Asia and Oceania. The comment is the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the stand of The Malaysian Reserve or its owners.