Robotics guru calls for more Waikato robots

KASHKA TUNSTALL
Last updated 07:54 17/11/2012
 Gavin Scott
CHRIS HILLOCK/Fairfax NZ
HELPING HAND: MilkTest’s Gavin Scott checks the work of a milk-sample sorting robot which has increased company productivity.

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Are robots the answer to shaking up our economy? Kashka Tunstall talks to automation expert Patrick Lim.

Waikato companies need to lift their use of technology - that was the message Patrick Lim had for local businesses when he came to town this week.

Lim is the manager of the robotics and automation team at Crown Research Institute, Industrial Research Limited (IRL).

Partially Government-funded, IRL's job is to implement research and development in the manufacturing and service sectors to intensify the economic, social and environmental sustainability of companies.

That means it helps New Zealand businesses grow to scale by developing technology and implementing automation systems where processes can be improved.

Automation is using machines, robotics, operating or controlling systems produced by automatic means to increase productivity.

Lim says automation is summed up nicely by the old adage: "Don't work harder, work smarter."

He's keen to get more Waikato businesses looking into how they can use automation and cultivate research and development to increase productivity.

Automation, he says, cuts across all industries including agritech, material technology, food and beverage manufacturing, digital technology, power and energy, medical technology and Maori business.

Dental mirrors that double as computer cursors, egg-separating robots for a boutique pavlova maker and development of renewable paint for Resene all fall under IRL's research and development brief.

Lim heads the team that dreams up the solution designs.

There are a few options for companies looking for a way to use automation in businesses, he says.

The simplest is to apply existing technologies from a different field.

As Lim says, all the work has been done and the technology can be directly applied.

An example is an adhesive material developed for military applications, effectively peel-and-stick technology, which is being used for roading projects.

Roading workers are trialling the adhesive on the bottom of reflective cat's eye markers on the road.

Instead of using the old method of boiling the bitumen, applying the markings and waiting for the road to reset, which takes time and holds up traffic, the cat's eyes are pressed on directly.

The second option is to adapt technology, pulling together different ideas to frame a new technology solution to an industry problem.

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If these two options don't suit, a business can create a totally novel technology, Lim says.

That's where research and development gets into full swing.

No matter what type of technology is adopted, Lim believes it is the key to help New Zealand catch up to Australia in production value and wages. Each region needs to do its part in looking at how its companies can use it.

"Automation and robotics is how the country will transition from a labour-driven economy to a capital-driven economy," he says.

But there's not much automation going on in the Waikato, says Lim, who has been part of the IRL team for 20 years, providing automation solutions for industry problems.

While big Waikato companies like Gallagher Group are already heavy users of, automation, the region's small and medium-sized businesses tend not to champion automation in the workplace, he says.

Lim is encouraging local companies to determine where processes can improve move towards a greater uptake of technology, leading the way to greater success.

"Small to medium-sized enterprises need to adopt new innovation approaches using robotics to make their processes a little more productive, more efficient and effective," he says.

Cost is no longer a barrier to adopting automation.

Lim says the cost of robotics has reduced significantly.

"At the cost of $50,000 you can have a fully articulate robot that 10 years ago would have cost $150,000."

And as further research and development is undertaken and new technologies are adapted to fit different functions, the cost will continue to fall.

Lim says a lot of industries across the country continue to be unnecessarily wary of technology advances.

"I think some of the industries are still resistant and are still pretty much looking towards what they have done in the past because they don't understand how far technology has evolved."

That is an attitude that needs to be updated, he says.

Businesses needed to understand that automation can be used and utilised alongside people in the production plant.

INDUSTRIAL RESEARCH LTD

A Crown Research Institute, it generates yearly revenues of $65 million, 70 per cent of which come from Government-contested and core funding. The rest comes from working with industry, both domestically and internationally. The company employs 350 employees and more than half have PhDs and other higher-learning degrees. 

- Waikato

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