Robots could bring big benefits to small Canadian businesses

While Canadian small and mid-sized manufacturers don’t make much use of robotics, a European Union project may change all that.

Dubbed SMErobot – the project aims at introducing prototype robots into the lower-scale manufacturing sector this year.

Spearheaded by consortium of European robot makers, SMErobot will develop robots for use by small and mid-sized enterprises (SME) involved in manufacturing.  

The first prototypes will debut at the Automatica conference June 10-13 in Munich, Germany.

The project seeks to address issues that stop many Canadian SME manufacturers from investing in robotics.

The idea is to make robots affordable, safe, and easy to install and use, according to Corinna Noltenius, project manager of Stuttgart, Germany-based SMErobot.

“They are much lighter [and] much more flexible,” she says.
The safety aspect was also a big focus. “It’s a demonstration of where this project can go in the future.”

Until now, manufacturing robots have used mainly by large enterprises, as smaller businesses were scared off by the cost of the technology, says Mohamed Kamel, director of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

“The return on investment may not be good enough for them to get robotics,” he says.

Instead, Canadians rely on simple machines and old-fashioned elbow grease of human labour to turn out their products.

Case in point is Toronto-based automotive manufacturer Samco Machinery Ltd.

Samco recently made a deal to help  develop parts for the Indian Nano car, one of the cheapest cars available – carrying a price tag of about $2,500.

Their business relies on workers to produce a variety of different parts that require knowledge and precision, says Lisa Repova, vice-president of marketing and sales at Samco.

“In my experience, robotics can only be used to do repetitive tasks,” she says. “We don’t have that type of business.”

But the SMErobot project claims to address these common concerns of smaller-scale manufacturers.

Frequent switching of tasks and devices participating in tasks next to human workers will be on display at the conference, according to an exhibit teaser paper.

For example, a woodworking robot will be showing off the different tasks it can perform simply by switching its tool adaptor – just like switching drill bits, Noltenius says.

“You can change the product line from one day to another,” she says. “You could use a robot one day in the woodworking foundry for spraying, and the next day for cutting.”

The robots on display are outfitted with a new force sensor that is designed for “lead-through programming,” according to the teaser. This allows workers to easily program the robot for a task by showing it what to do.

In a video on the SMErobot Web site, an actor grapples with a CGI-generated robot figure and shows it where to drill five holes in a wooden board. The robot then is able to do this automatically when presented with a similar board.

The force sensor is a silicon micro electro-mechanical sensor that is attached to a steel transducer. It is designed to be less expensive than other similar force sensors available, according to the teaser.

Lower cost and better productivity – issues that impact the bottom line – are the main features that will appeal to potential SME customers.

Though skeptical of a robot’s ability to replace Samco workers, Repova says she’d be interested in the economic benefits offered by robotics. “The savings on labour costs would be huge.”  

Gaining a competitive edge sounds particularly alluring to Canadian manufacturers hit by the rising Canadian dollar. In Ontario, government recently attempted to relieve the pressure by eliminating capital tax, and increased the small business tax deduction from $400,000 to $500,000.

Small and medium manufacturers make up 99.5 per cent of all manufacturers, according to the Ontario government. The sector employs 450,000 people and generates $46 billion in revenue annually.

Yet Ontario’s Ministry of Small Business and Entrepreneurship doesn’t appear to have much awareness about the use of robotics in the small and medium manufacturing centre. They were unaware of any manufacturers planning to attend the conference in Germany.

International interest for the SMErobot project has poured in from Europe and Asia, according to Noltenius. A few of the European manufacturers have joined on as testing-phase partners.

Manufacturers will put the robots to work in a one-year pilot project and report back their experiences, Noltenius says.

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