The robot revolution transforming sheet metal bending – and tackling a European skills crisis
A Lithuanian-led partnership has created the world‘s first standardised robot cell for bending sheet metal – an innovation that brings enhanced flexibility to manufacturing, and could be the key to overcoming a key skills shortage in the sheet metal industry in Germany and across Europe.
Bent-metal parts are needed everywhere – but current manufacturing processes feature expensive, single-purpose machinery that cannot be adapted to changing requirements. The advantage of RoboBend, say its makers, is that it can be programmed to produce a wide range of products. The robot can be installed into existing production lines, and is compatible with all existing types of press brakes. Bending time depends on the difficulty of the detail being produced, ranging from as little as a minute for simple parts, up to 2-3 minutes for more sophisticated parts.
“The idea began in 2017,” explains Thomas Ronlev, CEO and co-founder of RoboBend ApS and robotic R&D specialist, Factobotics. “One of Factobotics’ clients requested a tailor-made robotic solution for sheet metal bending. We soon discovered many other companies had a similar problem. The answer was a standardised robot – that’s when we established RoboBend. So, the robotic solution came from collaboration with Factobotics, but Robobend now is an independent company.”
After investing close to EUR 1 million, RoboBend installed its first standardised robot in 2020 for the company Tool Denmark A/S. Since then, the robot maker has received orders from the automotive and construction industries, food sector and others.
Initially focusing on the Danish market, RoboBend has also attracted interest in Lithuania, where Factobotics is based. Now, RoboBend is ready to scale its operations and focus on new export markets. From 2022, the company is targeting customers across Northern Europe – particularly in Germany.
With between 150,000 and 200,000 press brakes currently in operation, Germany represents a huge market for RoboBend, which has already received requests from German companies and sales partners.
“Germany is of vital importance to us, because it has a big lead in manufacturing –and a significant interest in keeping it,” explains Ronlev. “German companies are turning to robotisation to maintain their leading position, because it’s becoming harder and harder to find qualified people.”
Indeed, skilled labour is a major problem across Europe. The European Commission’s Skills Panorama portal predicts 2.7 million unfilled metal machinery job vacancies across the EU by 2030.
“A qualified workforce is crucial to manufacturing success – but future generations are turning to other careers. That’s why robots are the solution,” says Ronlev.
Justinas Katkus, co-founder and Head of Product Design at Factobotics, is quick to point out that automation is not a threat to jobs, but increases the value of skilled workers: “Robots help to maintain jobs, not take them away. Thanks to robots, factories can maintain the same or higher capacity. And that means money stays in Europe, in the form of jobs, wages, supply chains and investments.”
“Globally, the trend is towards less repetitive work,“ he adds. “Everyone wants to move people up the value chain.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting global supply chains, manufacturers are also realising they can no longer rely on suppliers in distant locations like China. As robotic solutions become more capable, cheaper, and easier to implement, companies are reversing the process of offshoring to bring production closer to home – helping to build resilience into their supply chains.
Robotics has advanced rapidly in recent years. Next-generation robots like RoboBend are smarter and easier to program and re-task, with intuitive, easy-to-use interfaces. They can be integrated easily into existing production processes alongside workers, without the need to replan the entire production line.
And robotisation no longer requires the same large initial outlay – the increasingly popular ‘Robots as a Service’ (RaaS) business model enables companies able to lease robots rather than buy, making robots an attractive option even for smaller companies producing low volumes.
With the world becoming more complicated every day, it’s great to come home to simplicity. To create a natural oasis of calm and cosiness, German consumers are increasingly choosing to surround themselves with the beauty and simplicity of furniture and other household goods that are made using natural, sustainable materials.
To achieve success, it’s often said you need to “think big” – and for one family of master jewellers from Lithuania, it’s literally true. Their leap from jewellery-making to furniture design might not seem the most obvious move – but by putting their creativity and expert metalworking skills to work on a larger scale, they have produced a range of subtle, nature-inspired tables and other items they call “jewellery for the home”. And after finding favour with buyers at home and in the US, they now hope German consumers will fall in love with their innovative designs too.