Sales growth for industrial robots is slower in France than in its neighbouring countries. But Thomas Hoffmann, business development director at Actemium, believes that the obstacles to be overcome, particularly by SMEs, have been identified and do not affect the rollout of Industry 4.0.

Throughout the world, robot adoption in industry is continuing apace. Driven by the Chinese market, global sales rose by 30 % in 2017 following an increase of 16 % in 2016, according to the annual report of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) published on 18 October 2018. This does not apply to France however, where the market is still growing but at a slower pace. The 4,900 robots installed in 2017 represent an increase of just 16 %, a lower rate than the previous year.

Has France fallen out of love with Industry 4.0? Not at all, says Thomas Hoffmann, business development director at Actemium (VINCI Energies), the network of companies delivering high value-added solutions and services to industry. In his view, “This mixed result is more a reflection of the effect of the obstacles to automation that still exist in France than a reappraisal of industry’s transformation process.”

“If we don’t make humans central to the robotic solution deployed and if we don’t think about how to integrate robots with employees, then we are bound to fail”

A slowdown in investment, a network of integrators that may be inadequate, and organisational resistance are among the obstacles referred to by Hoffmann, who is responsible for Actemium’s Robotics, Logistics, and Automobile clubs. The size and culture of French SMEs, which are not open enough to industrial robots, also explain the relative gap that has developed between France and Germany, for example, where SMEs are larger and better capitalised. A further barrier is the lack of training and skills in the French workforce. Industry’s image with young people needs to be boosted.

AGVs, AIVs and cobots

According to the IFR report, robots that handle and load parts account for most (56 %) of the demand in France. AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) symbolise this trend, confirmed by Actemium experts who combine these handling robots with artificial intelligence to design and deploy AIVs (Autonomous Intelligent Vehicles), as at the Banque de France.

The automation of the banknote printing plant is a case in point which illustrates how robots can be used to meet a specific need. Actemium started by carrying out a feasibility study which resulted in various scenarios. One of these involved transporting banknotes and securing the banknote packaging process in the new unit – free of human operators – by using an intelligent vehicle designed as an AIV-mounted safe. It’s this new approach to a workflow in a small factory that the Banque de France selected and implemented.

Another trend in automation, in France and worldwide, says Hoffmann, is cobots. These collaborative robots help humans to perform repetitive, strenuous work. It’s not about replacing real people but about shifting higher value-added work towards them, he claims. His argument is based on efficiency: “If we don’t make humans central to the robotic solution deployed and if we don’t think about how to integrate robots with employees, then we are bound to fail.”

The misconception that robots spell the end for jobs is a social barrier in France. Removing this barrier means affirming that humans must work hand in hand with robots.