Business helps introduce robots

MICHAEL BERRY
Last updated 08:33 09/07/2012
Mike Shatford
DON SCOTT/Fairfax NZ

AN ARM UP: Design Energy managing director Mike Shatford with one of the new robotic arms he hopes will boost New Zealand manufacturing.

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Christchurch mechanical engineering firm Design Energy wants to make small Kiwi manufacturers more competitive with the help of robotics.

Managing director Mike Shatford said his company took on the New Zealand agency for Danish-built Universal Robots late last year.

He is keen to get the manipulator arms working for small Kiwi manufacturers who may have overlooked the idea of using robots in the past.

He started Design Energy about five years ago and through word of mouth alone business had poured in.

The business had doubled its turnover each year since opening the doors, he said.

Most of the work was helping firms design products and production systems.

There were many great ideas and products being made in New Zealand, but it was bittersweet because the manufacturing would eventually go overseas, along with the benefits, Shatford said.

He believed Science and Innovation Ministry grants toward new sciences and products were great, but they needed to be accompanied by grants to help keep production in New Zealand to ensure the maximum benefit in jobs and income for the country.

This year, the business has moved toward helping small Kiwi manufacturers introduce robots.

Many people thought robots were difficult to operate and took people's jobs, however that was not the case any more, he said.

Robots helped companies with repetitive tasks and usually meant eliminating production bottlenecks, Shatford said.

The robots freed up staff to do other jobs either side of the robot, he said.

It was hard for Kiwis to compete with overseas manufacturers with low wages and higher economies of scale, but he believed robotics would help them edge closer.

"We're trying to make robotics and industrial automation accessible to smaller Kiwi manufacturers."

The manipulator arm cost about $40,000 and could be set up to do different jobs.

That flexibility could make it easier for the robot to pay for itself quicker, he said.

The robot was like a human worker: all you had to do was put the right tool for the job in its hand.

Kiwis were not particularly innovative in the way they did things, he said.

The No 8 wire attitude was good for coming up with a solution to a specific problem, but it did not help streamline large-volume production, he said.

"[In manufacturing] you have to become very clever; a dollar of wasted time or a dollar of wasted process starts adding up," Shatford said.

New Zealand Manufacturers and Exporters Association chief executive John Walley said many more Kiwi manufacturers had robots and automated systems in place than people would expect.

Most of a business' decision to purchase a robot or automated system was dependent on the technology's cost and the volume it would put out, Walley said.

The cost of robotics had fallen considerably, meaning robotics stacked up more for smaller producers than it would have a decade ago, he said.

"People have to keep improving their margin where they can and keeping that scan [of the market], that understanding of what's available and what it can be applied to," Walley said.

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- The Press

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