Improving The Productivity of Robots
The introduction of robots in manufacturing has improved productivity and product quality tremendously. However, contrary to common perception, robots don’t think for themselves and making them do what they do is not a trivial exercise. Spanish Wepall has introduced a new software tool that is about to disrupt the disruptors.
Wepall is a spinoff from Inemur, an engineering company that integrates machinery and robots for handling packs and packages. Founded in 1989, the company has expanded out of its home in the south-eastern corner of Spain and today serves customers in over forty countries.
“The idea for Wepall was born out of our systems integration activities for clients,” says Gregorio Navarro, CEO at Wepall. “Making robots do what they do consumes many engineering hours and often requires skills that the factory does not possess. That becomes a real headache when robots need to be reprogrammed to do a different job.”
In the past, clients called Inemur whenever there was a need for reprogramming a robot to do a different job. Although this offered an attractive professional services revenue stream for the company, it took away scarce resources from other activities, and the inconvenience for customers in terms of delay and cost was substantial. The fact that different brands of robots have different programming environments only added to the challenge.
“We wanted to enable the customer to do the reprogramming themselves using the staff they already employed,” Gregorio Navarro explains. “Although it would hurt our professional service revenue, we were convinced that it would improve customer satisfaction even more. In the long run, that is more important.”
Having developed the software, Inemur realised that all users of palletising robots could benefit from the product and decided to spin off the activity as a separate company with its own strategy, management and operation.
“The DNA of engineering and that of a product company are fundamentally different,” Gregorio Navarro stresses. “Although the idea for and the development of Wepall required the engineering and domain expertise that Inemur represents, it needs a different operational environment to take full advantage of the software’s potential.”
Most robots are in Asia
According to IFR, The International Federation of Robotics, 74 per cent of industrial robots are installed in China, Japan, the USA, Korea and Germany. China, which remains the worlds manufacturing hub, accounts for 26 per cent of all industrial robots, Japan hosts 13 per cent, South Korea 12 per cent, and the rest of Asia 9 per cent. The remaining 40 per cent is spread across the rest of the world with 22 per cent in Europe and 14 per cent in North America, including Mexico.
While industrial robots have meant that manufacturing jobs can stay in-country, two out of three new robots were installed in Asia in 2018. The growth rate in new robot installations is higher in Europe and the USA, but it will take many years to shift the balance, and Asia is obviously working hard to remain competitive.
“With offices in Europe and Hong Kong we can reach over 80 per cent of the global market,” Gregorio Navarro explains. “However, we have decided to pursue an indirect go-to-market approach, that allows us full market coverage.”
The global market for industrial robots is well-organised and served by distributors and systems integrators. These companies have established relationships to the customers as well as to the manufacturers. While the Wepall value proposition to the customers offering lower cost, faster implementation and improved flexibility is easy to understand, the systems integrators need to appreciate the long-term value.
“We serve our customers through OEM arrangements with the robot manufacturers and the established distributor network,” says Alfonso Ballesteros, Chief Commercial Officer at Wepall and located in the Hong Kong office. “The benefits that the customers achieve are very much at the expense of the systems integrators. The latter need to learn how to substitute current programming services with other services that generate more value for the customers. Fighting progress that harms your revenue stream may be an instinctive reaction, but not a viable long-term strategy. We all need to embrace change, also when it affects us negatively in the short term.”
Wepall is also expanding the commercial team, having already incorporated an Area Manager located in Spain to cover parts of Europe and two more in China (one in Shenzhen and another in Shanghai). It is planning to incorporate a new Area Manager in Central Europe shortly and intend to start creating a commercial structure in North America before the end of this year.
The customer challenge
Pastas Gallo is, as the name indicates, a company producing pasta products. They have manufacturing facilities in Spain and sell their products all over the world.
For this article, I have spoken with José Alberto Cerdeira, the plant manager at the factory in El Carpio, Andalusia, Spain.
“We produce 24/7, 365 days a year,” says José Alberto Cerdeira. “At the end of each of our thirteen production lines, we have a palletising robot packing the goods for distribution. From time to time, we need to reprogram these robots, and with the old technology, it takes 14-16 hours, and I only have one person that can do it. With Wepall it takes a few minutes, and any of our engineers can do it.”
Of the thirteen palletising robots, only three have been retrofitted with Wepall, and I am surprised to learn that José Alberto only plans to migrate one or two a year.
“I would migrate them all to Wepall tomorrow if I could,” José Alberto stresses. “However, we have an unfortunate technical setup that makes the migration a two to three-week effort. We need to make some mechanical changes and do maintenance while we have the production line down. The opportunity cost of a three-week production stop is very high, which is unfortunate. We will have all our palletising robots migrated to Wepall, but unfortunately, it takes longer than I like.”
Some of José Alberto’s robots are of an early generation. They do not have enough memory for storing all the palletising formats they used to have before, due to the bigger size of each palletising structure on the new Wepall environment.
“The Wepall engineers are currently helping us with the setup of an IT-infrastructure that could allow us to manage the usage of robot memory much more efficiently,” José Alberto explains. “Our approach at this moment is to use the existing FTP network of our Fanuc robots. By hosting the full library of the new Wepall palletising formats files on the server, we can make them available for any robot, even on the older ones, despite their limited memory. This solution is a huge advantage since replacing a robot is both expensive and time-consuming. This way, Wepall is extending the lifetime of the robots.”
José Alberto tells me that if he were to design a greenfield operation, he would make sure that all the palletising robots were delivered with the Wepall software.
“In an operation that runs 24/7-365 anything that can minimise downtime and remove bottlenecks and contingencies are welcomed,” José Alberto concludes. “In this context, Wepall is a precious innovation. It brings down the time it takes to reconfigure a robot, and almost anyone can perform it. We no longer depend on having the one specialist available for this time-critical job, but can use him or her for other projects.”