Kiwi SME robotic automation now a must, not a maybe

Christchurch-based Design Energy is in somewhat of a unique situation. It has a product and service that most Kiwi businesses think they are too small for, but the stark reality is that if they put it in place they would forever wonder how they ever worked without it – robotic automation.

While the company provides for New Zealand’s larger producer it is increasingly seeing a meeting of ways between smaller businesses and the robotic technology beginning to serve them.

The company’s founder and managing director Mike Shatford says that manufacturing automation is now intrinsic in other parts of the world, but in comparison New Zealand lags far behind in terms uptake albeit not through its own fault.

“New Zealand has not historically been able to deploy automation/robotics due to our smaller production volumes and therefore not the target for the type of automated systems that have been available that required a mass production scale for efficiencies,” Mike tells Engineering News.

But, he says, the robotic automation landscape that’s now available on the home front has changed due to this massive global uptake. And with that opportunity knocks for many SMEs.

“The scale of industry and demand is driving robot cost down and capability of technology upwards,” he says.

But leaving the train station late has put us behind at all stops.

“Due to that historic inability to automate, mainly due to required scale, we are also missing skillsets within industry. Where large countries have had continuous use, experience, learning as automation technology progressed – our engineers, accountants, maintenance people are not as knowledgeable with robotics,” Mike explains. He says this flows through again to not knowing how to use them efficiently or even how to maintain them.

Measuring and justifying the benefits of robotic automation is where Design Energy steps in, in terms or having the products, implementing the systems and tweaking the efficiency on a case-by-case nature.

Design Energy has analysed New Zealand’s business terrain and through that it has isolated where robotics automation can benefit Kiwi manufacturing the most. Large scale manufacturing, perhaps surprisingly to many, did not come out at the top of the list.

“New Zealand has a unique business infrastructure with a swag of SME’s – in fact, over 97% of New Zealand businesses are classified as SMEs according to MBIE,” Mike tells Engineering News.

It’s here, he says, because “they are the majority of our producers,” where the company now believes it can offer its services best.

“They don’t need the speed, they need the flexibility. It’s also harder to get a return on investment as SMEs are making smaller quantities, so it takes a level of expertise to first off, evaluate if robotic automation technology will benefit them, then if so, and many will be very surprised to find out that in most cases the answer is ‘yes’, install, train and work with the customer to make huge gains in efficiencies and most importantly greater profit.”

He says robotics automation should be nothing to fear.

Design Energy, under the AutoMATE brand, has been a national provider of robotic automation hardware (robot sales) and solutions (turn-key’s, training, service) for the past decade. Mike and his team know the local automation terrain well.

“In contrast to many industrial technology resellers we have built a complete offering around robots – we can supply a robot, training, servicing, but many New Zealand users do not have the skills in-house to deploy robotics so we can step in to provide a turn-key solution. The fact that we can turn out a fully integrated and commissioned system stands testament to our technical knowledge and capability. Building a one-off machine that works first time – no second tries here – requires an extremely talented team,” says Mike.

The company’s customers are reassured in knowing that this level of capability and support is available in country, whereas non-practicing resellers will “refer you to a chapter in a manual or ‘go back to the manufacturer’ for advice”.

“The team at Design Energy has over 100 years of automation experience to draw from. As we compete on world markets with our Kiwi-made products we must get in synch with automation – our relatively high cost of labour and distance to markets mean that we must produce our goods with the latest, most efficient means available.