How robots will win over the future

By Bjorn Henseler, Schuler Consulting

 

Malaysia’s furniture industry players spent a day at ABB to understand how robotics can facilitate challenges in production.

Today, the end-consumer’s demand for customised furniture is what’s making up most of the orders. The number of furniture per order has also gone down, forcing factories to shift from mass manufacturing to producing in small batches instead. At the same time, the industry has had to deal with labour shortage, increasing costs and the need for process stability.

These trends have beleaguered manufacturers all over the world; those that have not reacted quickly enough have paid dearly, driving some into bankruptcy.

For others, concepts such as automatic Production Data generation (so-called Industry 4.0) and automated Business Processes have finally found their way onto the management’s agenda. It is a good thing, but this is only half of the story.

ROBOTS ARE THE FUTURE

A panel furniture factory consists manufacturing processes like Cutting, Edge banding, Drilling, Packing with Material Buffers and in between these, other “Work in Progress.” For example, to make things easier, we can automate transportation between two machines.

Within the buffer, we can also automate the handling at a certain machine or cell. Compared to a high-tech factory that operates without these buffer areas, we cannot afford to give up on them compared to a perfectly balanced production line with fully automated transportation and little variations in product types.

Manufacturers today require a highly flexible plant that can be adjusted to build any type of furniture or design that pops up on the blueprint. Balancing the initial changes seems impossible. But where can we go from here?

To answer this question, ABB, a pioneer in automatic industrial robots, and Schuler Consulting rounded up some manufacturers and suppliers for a seminar in Subang Jaya, Malaysia.

The task was to discuss struggles in furniture manufacturing with the robotics equipment supplier and share some of the solutions applied in other sectors such as automotive or consumer electronics that deal with a variety of parts and processes.

During the seminar, ABB also discovered how much variety the furniture industry works with. It suggests that if robots are to handle Batch Size One products, the technology required should be visual recognition systems achieved using cameras.

Notably, using robotics in furniture making is not entirely new. For example, loading CNC machines with robots or handling devices, cutting complicated chair shapes out of 3D forms, applying lacquering in throughfeed lines as well as packing are some processes currently operated by robots in Asian factories.

INTEGRATING HIGH-TECH SOLUTIONS

In the region’s diverse furniture industry, standard robot programmes that operate the same task for prolonged periods are not feasible due to the number of different parts manufactured in a day. We need to move from manually programming robots all the time to one where automatic visual recognition can be done with cameras.

We need a robot programme that recognises parameters like “Length” and “Width”, one that is intelligent enough to address and adapt to swift production changes without much human intervention. This is not new in Europe where mobile pedestals for office desks are already being fully assembled in one production cell without involving any manual labour.

Only when Asian factories take bold measures to integrate high-tech solutions will they be able to overcome the challenges of today and those of the future. 

 

*This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Panels & Furniture Asia.