The European Union (EU) is offering smaller manufacturers €8 million to close the funding gap and make their logistics 10 times faster. Better still, says Nick Booth, the money is ear-marked for spending on mobile robotics systems. This ‘open call’ is more like an open goal, surely.
The new Logistics for Manufacturing SMEs initiative (L4MS) is supported by the European Commission and promises to ‘accelerate’ the automation of intra-factory logistics of small- to medium-sized manufacturers.
It will achieve this by completely digitalising logistics automation in factories, allowing suppliers to create logistics systems that are 10 times faster and cheaper than now. But will L4MS really open the door to robotics, artificial intelligence and virtualisation?
According to project co-ordinator Ali Muhammad in Finland, L4MS will work with no infrastructure change, no production downtime and no in-house expertise.
“Investment in logistics automation will become extremely attractive for European manufacturing SMEs and mid-caps,” says Muhammad.
The use of mobile robots will not only automate the logistics, which is half the production cost, but will also provide ‘unprecedented flexibility’ on the factory floor for batch production.
There’s more on the web site about the OPIL (Open Platform for Innovations in Logistics) and the 3D simulator that will virtualise the intra-factory logistics automation.
Big manufacturers are racing ahead as they can quickly adopt mobile robots to increase productivity. Meanwhile, the number of SMEs using advanced technologies is less than 2%. The L4MS initiative aims to raise their game. The first step is to help them to visualise the improvements that could be made – which is where the 3D simulator does its work. In tandem with an IoT platform, they can then automate much of the transport of goods and materials between factories and warehouses. This will speed up the process, improve safety and cut costs.
With the help of L4MS this ‘fork lift upgrade’ becomes a lot less painful and risky. In doing so it creates more competition in the IoT of Transport, which could otherwise become the domain of the behemoths. Which would ultimately stifle innovation.
The use of mobile robots will not only automate the logistics – making up half of any manufacturer’s production costs – but create the flexibility needed to compete. Wasn’t flexibility the one major advantage that SMEs had over giant corporations? Automation threatens to neutralise that, which is a shame because we need SMEs to keep stoking up the competition.
The theory of the L4MS scheme is sound, says Nigel Smith, CEO of TM Robotics, because it is harder for SMEs to automate because of the investment needed. You need £50,000 (€56,600) at least and funding comes hard in the current climate. It’s the inflexibility of the big system integrators or robot providers that’s worse, says Smith. Finding a supplier that suits the SME’s production line needs, rather than dictates them, is the crucial battle in the war on costs.
So, it’s the people that may be intransigent. If only there was a way to automate their jobs!
By Nick Booth, freelance IT and communications writer