Tuesday 27th October 2020

Robots will make make logistics 10 times faster, but only when L4MS has done its job

Published on January 9th, 2018

The EU is offering smaller manufacturers €8 million to close the funding gap and make their logistics 10 times faster. Better still, the money is ear-marked for spending on mobile robotics systems. This ‘open call’ is more like an open goal, surely, says Nick Booth.

What could possibly go wrong?

The new Logistics for Manufacturing SMEs initiative (L4MS) is supported by the European Commission and promises to ‘accelerate’ the automation of intra-factory logistics of small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Sounds promising.

It will achieve this by completely digitalising logistics automation in factories, allowing suppliers to create logistics systems that are 10 times faster and cheaper than now. But will L4MS really open the door to robotics, artificial intelligence and virtualisation?

According to project co-ordinator, Ali Muhammad in Finland, L4MS will work with no infrastructure change, no production downtime and no in-house expertise.

“Investment in logistics automation will become extremely attractive for European manufacturing SMEs and mid-caps,” says Muhammad.

The use of mobile robots will not only automate the logistics, which is half the production cost, but will also provide ‘unprecedented flexibility’ on the factory floor for batch production.

There’s more on the website about the OPIL (Open Platform for Innovations in Logistics) and the 3D simulator that will virtualise the intra-factory logistics automation.

Technology people are generally inventive and very positive, so we shall be cynical on your behalf. I have never applied for funding from a government body, but those that have say that it’s not the speed and flexibility of the technology that’s the issue. It’s the civil servants that slow everything down.

Speed of response

Robots may be able to self-integrate, logon, map, localise, receive the tasks and become part of the existing fleet. But civil servants don’t act like that. According to one start-up we interviewed, getting funding from a government official is the business equivalent of a pyrrhic victory, where you win the battle but lose the war. You spend so much time jumping through their fiery hoops – which they seemingly put up to amuse themselves – that it may have been more cost-effective to self-fund through your own work.

A case in point is Andrew Fentem, an inventor in Britain who had the idea for the concept that popularised the iPhone in 1999, way before Apple.

He made the mistake of asking the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) for help with development.

Nesta told Fentem he’d receive a funding decision within six weeks. It took Nesta a year to just write the contract.

It only took Apple two years to conceive, develop and commercialise the entire iPhone.

The theory of the L4MS scheme is sound, says Nigel Smith, CEO of TM Robotics, as it is harder for SMEs to automate because of the investment needed. You need £50k at least and funding comes hard in the current climate.

It’s the inflexibility of the big system integrators or robot providers that’s worse, says Smith. Finding a supplier that suits the SME’s production line needs, rather than dictates them, is the crucial battle in the war on costs.

So it’s the people that may be intransigent. If only there was a way to automate their jobs!

The author is Nick Booth, freelance telecoms and IoT writer

Nick BoothNick Booth spent many years in IT departments, striving to translate tech jargon into the lingua franca of hospitals, banks and London’s Metropolitan Police traffic division. This skill has since been applied to explain technology to readerships ranging from The News of the World to Network Reseller, taking in every level of technical enthusiasm and understanding in between. He has helped telcos to explain their strategy to their dealers, helped global software vendors to explain to their channel partners that ‘It Takes Two To Tango’ and helped UK regulator, OFCOM to gain popular acceptance for new regulations. A veteran of the early days of mobile data, he provided comms support to deeply suspicious SIM card connected Traffic cops. As a result, he is particularly sympathetic to the challenges faced by Transport IoT installers.