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Mar 31, 2000

Meet SA’s robotics king

© Reuse this With its supply of robots to the catalytic converter industry growing from zero to 20% of its total business in five years, Robotic Systems, of Johannesburg, has found yet another market with booming demand for vertically articulated robots.

“With the yearly production of autocats in South Africa expected to double in less than five years, we expect demand for robots in this market could surpass even the demand for robots from the rest of the automotive component manufacturing sector combined,” says Robotic Systems MD Terry Rosenberg.

Catalytic converter manufacturers like Tenneco, Autocat, Arvin Exhaust, AP Parts, Zeuna Starker, Precision Exhaust, and Magnetti Marelli already head up the company’s client list. Essentially, robots are computer-controlled machine tools that can be programmed to perform a range of functions from welding a car chassis to assisting a surgeon in performing delicate operations.

The word ‘robot’ was, in fact, taken from the Czech word robota, meaning drudgery, which is exactly where present-day robots come into the picture – they perform uncomfortable, tiring or monotonous tasks and do so with greater speed and accuracy than human beings.

The first generation of robots was employed by the automotive assembly and component manufacturing industry in the 1970s. Today, this industry accounts for 80% of the world’s robots in use.

Light general engineering, heavy fabrication and the food, beverage and consumer industries account for the remainder of the robot client base.

The irony is that, although these first-generation robots were developed in the US, it is the Japanese and Europeans that have perfected robot technology and, furthermore, that no robots are even manufactured on US soil any more. Not surprisingly, Robotic Systems is the local representative of Yaskawa Electric Corporation, of Tokyo, Japan, which produces the Motoman range of robots.

Yaskawa, one of the top-ten robot manufacturers in the world, produces some 6 000 robots a year.

The company, through its parent, offers a product range which provides for about 90% robot applications, such as arc- and spot-welding, glueing and sealing, cutting and materials handling.

“The South African market accounts for sales of about 100 robots a year in total, which may not seem like a large percentage in world terms, but still represents what is undoubtedly the most significant, if not the only, market in Africa as far as robots are concerned,” indicates Rosenberg. Robotic Systems has supplied more than 350 Motoman robots to the local market in its 18-year existence, and sold 36 robots last year, with the remainder supplied by local competitors or by German and Asian robot suppliers, which have concluded global supply contracts with the parent companies of local manufacturers. The latter option has become the trend in the automotive world in particular, with parent companies like BMW, DaimlerChrysler and Volkswagen signing blanket-order contracts with some of the main European robot manufacturers for the supply of an unknown number of robots to meet the needs of their subsidiaries worldwide.

BMW reportedly brought out a full factory from Germany, robots included, in line with the facelift of its Rosslyn plant to accommodate the manufacture of the new 3-series model.

Rosenberg is of the opinion that this trend is becoming more apparent in the hi-tech industries, and that the less-advanced industries are likely to follow suit.

The biggest implication of this trend is the cost reduction it offers because, although robot prices are roughly 20% lower than they were in yen terms about 20 years ago, currency fluctuations have meant that some countries, South Africa included, could end up paying ten times the amount for a robot than they would have paid then.

On the upside, he reminds that a robot has a life of about ten years before it is technologically obsolete, while it usually pays for itself within two to three years.

The globalisation of technology sourcing has led Rosenberg to rethink the position of his company in the context of Motoman Europe.

Robotic Systems has had a solid relationship with the Motoman subsidiary in Europe for some time now and, in an effort to cement this relationship, entered into discussions with the subsidiary to acquire a majority shareholding in the South African company late last year.

Yaskawa already owns 24% of Robotic Systems.

“Should this deal materialise, it will result in investment in this country and would place us in an even stronger position than we already are,” reasons Rosenberg.

One area provoking much debate and resulting in little conformity concerns the form that the next generation of robots will take.

Elaborating on world trends, Rosenberg says that the industry is working with faster, lighter, more accurate and user-friendly fifth- and sixth-generation robots, but the trend seems to be moving towards the development of intelligent robots.

Despite all the research and development, Rosenberg reports that nothing tangible has materialised as yet.

“In the end, we still have to produce a machine that can be relied upon to perform a repetitive range of tasks as well as or even better, than humans can”.

Edited by: System Author
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