Using robotics in a limited set of environments is not new, with well-known brands adopting and implementing elements of robotics as part of their everyday manufacturing processes. However, with the field of robotics advancing rapidly, can the use of robotics be broader than manufacturing environments and can SMEs use them to achieve the same benefits at various scales?
This blog will look at what robotics means, both literally and for businesses. Following this, we will consider SMEs’ potential benefits and possible routes forward.
Robotics is a term used to describe the engineering processes of bringing together robot design, development and use in an environment. This can include a business environment or any other environment in which robots are implemented and operated. Whilst it may sound like a new field, the first robot was developed in the late 1950s and used in the 1960s on a vehicle construction assembly line. The field of robotics has been rapidly advancing ever since.
The first robots were used in environments that were thought challenging to humans, focusing on production within factories and manufacturing. However, as computers have become more sophisticated, so have robots. In recent years, academic and business teams have developed robots intended to support functions in a wider range of environments, including:
- Settings that require human interaction and care. The market for humanoid robots is expected to exceed $3.5bn before 2025. These types of robots could be used in healthcare, retail, and the arts and entertainment sectors to offer improved customer service or personal support.
- Maintenance of systems in high-risk environments, including those in the nuclear and transport industries. These robots could perform predictive or emergency maintenance or be used to intervene when humans cannot enter an environment due to hazards.
- The use of smart home devices to improve experiences for individuals. These types of robots include those which reduce or remove the burden of cleaning (such as robot vacuum cleaners) but can also include those which support improved coordination of scheduling and operations concerning multitasking work around the home.
Alongside these opportunities, collaborative robots, or “cobots”, are also being explored. These types of robots aim to work in close proximity and/or jointly with humans to undertake tasks with greater complexity. Cobots can be operated safely around humans, with a lower health and safety risk. They can work interactively with humans, leading to the undertaking and completion of a wider range of tasks.
Whilst these developments broaden the range of situations in which robots could be deployed, how can SMEs take advantage of the options and what benefits might robots bring?
There are several frequently cited benefits of the use of robotics in businesses, including:
- Improvements in the use of human skills: tasks that require complex thinking and solutions can be the focus for humans, whilst robots can undertake tasks which are repetitive and simpler.
- Productivity improvements: with tasks reallocated, it allows employees to focus their efforts on tasks which have greater business implications, whilst the more straightforward tasks can be taken care of at a quicker and more efficient rate.
- Development of skills: the adoption of robotics supports upskilling within businesses to enable the effective deployment, management and operations of the robotic system used. This allows existing employees the opportunity to learn new skills and for companies to expand their workforce to incorporate a broader range of skills.
Alongside the above are sector-specific and industry-relevant benefits businesses can exploit and leverage to further improve operations, performance and growth. However, where should SMEs start when considering how to incorporate robotics into their business?
Whilst the field of opportunity to incorporate robotics into business is expanding, there several questions that challenge SME adoption, including:
- How much and where should an SME invest?
- How can an SME know in advance if robotics would make a difference?
- Who can help develop robotics capability if the skills don’t exist in the current workforce?
In response to these questions, several resources are available to local SMEs. The North of England Robotics Innovation Centre (NERIC), established at the University of Salford, offers complete and fully-funded support for local SMEs. Through NERIC, local SMEs can access expert advice and technical skills to determine whether robotics suits their business and how to implement it. The NERIC team provide support throughout the adoption journey to minimise the chance of complications and challenges emerging regardless of the adoption stage. To find out more, reach out to the NERIC team at NERIC@salford.ac.uk.
Alongside NERIC, the Innovation Team in the GC Business Growth Hub provides support and guidance for SMEs looking to adopt innovative approaches to operations. Through this fully funded service, SMEs can access support to understand the business benefits and implications of adoption. Through their links with local Universities and Knowledge Centres, the Innovation Team can also help local SMEs access further expert advice and guidance. To find out more about the support available, reach out to your local Innovation Advisor today.
Stephen Slater, Innovation Development Manager
Stephen joined GC Business Growth Hub as the Innovation Development Manager for the University of Salford in May 2022. Stephen will be building on his multi sector experience to help build commercial links to innovative projects.
Most recently, Stephen has worked as Technical Manager for a UK CBRN protective garment manufacturer, where he built links with specialist research centres around the globe to help deliver innovative, user focused equipment. As CBRN protection only works as part of a system, Stephen built excellent working relationships with major supplier partnerships. This is one of the many role Stephen has held with close contact with the UK MoD. Previous roles have seen Stephen being heavily involved in garment trials and certification for the US DoD and UK MoD across Pilot Flight Systems and CBRN for aircrew and land based forces. Often Stephen would volunteer for testing to fully understand the needs of the user, primarily the human-system integration in the garment or products primary roles.
Stephens main career focus has taken place in marine and aviation survival, where he managed the delivery of the design and certification of helicopter passenger and crew flight jackets. This involved work with multiple suppliers, to deliver multi-location manufactured parts into a final assembled system including compressed gas breathing apparatus and certified to CAA and ETSO aviation standards. Working again with research institutions for testing and verification, Stephen also sat on the BSi CEN committee for offshore survival in hostile sea areas. During this period, Stephen also worked on CBRN protection, load carriage, ballistic protection, material selection, quality management and been point of contact for auditing bodies across design and manufacture projects.
Stephen’s early career was dedicated to the sports and outdoor industry, working for major UK retailers to deliver sporting goods, equipment and luggage. Working with major licensed brands, Stephen’s designs were delivered in partnership with Far Eastern factories into UK, US and EU markets. Products ranged from bespoke children’s toys to high end golf bags, footballs, back packs and luggage.
Stephen has also worked in print media, graphic design and packaging to add to his already diverse CV , which will enable him to offer companies from Greater Manchester and the wider region the best support and links into the University of Salford.