This robot maker says community factories are the future

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  • By Emily McDaid

    Sphere Global, based in Derry~Londonderry, is a company that knows about automation.

    “We’re the first company in the world bringing robotics to the construction industry,” began CEO Sean McNicholl. “But if you asked me three years ago whether I’d say that, I’d say you’re mad.”

    How can Sphere Global make that claim? They are building 14,000 villas using robots in both India and Dubai, on the back of a contract with mega-factories. The villas are completely pre-fabricated by robots, which do all the cutting, building welding, and creation of structural components. They even paint the walls. The robots can complete two villas per day. Sean tells me that all of the robotics are made right here in Northern Ireland through a contract with Kef Holdings.

    Sphere Global has been developing robotics solutions for ten years, and is well-positioned to capitalise on a new, important change in robots: collaborative robots. There are tight regulations around how humans and robots can interact on the factory floor – previously meaning that humans couldn’t stand next to a robot, because of the risk of being crushed. Now, robots are programmed to back off if they’re brushed or pushed by a human, so the risk of bodily harm is averted. This has changed the face of automation in industry.

    “Ten years ago robots could only do pick-and-place functions on objects that were in static positions. Things are totally advanced now. Communication to robots is much better, and you don’t need the same product to be in the same position.”

    Sphere Global brings automation to many different sectors, one of them being healthcare. Each year, 180 million blister packs for pharmaceutical tablets are created by their robots. Sean said, ”It’s the first system in the world that can dispense tablets without a pharmacy check.”

    Sphere Global’s business in robotics has increased 400 per cent in two years. “It’s massive right now,” said Sean.

    Should we fear the robots? “Not at all – automation is bringing companies like Adidas and Dell back into Europe. And it’s not because China is becoming less cheap. It’s because commodities are becoming harder to get. Manufacturing is coming back to smaller, local sites that use local suppliers—it enables them to lock down costs, so they can plan ahead 20 years into the future. Being close to the customer also makes next-day delivery possible.”

    The trend promises huge benefits for the environment – even if the economic drivers are what’s making it happen. Imagine a world where your shoes are made in your own country – it’s almost too good to believe.

    But Sean says, “We’re not talking about the future, it’s right now. 18 per cent of Fortune 200 companies are making plans to set up manufacturing back in Europe and the Americas.” Sean also says the factories won’t be super sites – rather, they’ll be smaller operations in small towns. The impact to the supply chain is important. “Everyone worries robots will reduce employment but this isn’t proven. For every £1 spent by a factory, £3 is spent in the wider community.”

    Sean gets very animated when he discusses automation, and he’s been a frequent commentator on local radio. I can practically hear his voice on the Nolan show as he says, “Companies can see 70 per cent growth in business by using automation. Robots aren’t just replacing labour. They’re improving repeatability, throughput, yield, and decreasing human error. They are sustaining companies and creating new jobs – we just need to be prepared for having new skill sets.”

    Sean concluded: “Companies that put their head in the sand on automation will regret it. The biggest risk is not understanding it. Someone else will find a way to do things cheaper. There’s a reason automation was the second largest growing sector in the world last year.”

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