Drives & Controls Magazine September 2023

n NEWS September 2023 8 Rockwell Automation has announced plans build an automated 6,780m2 hydroponic vertical farm inside its US headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by the summer of 2024. It is collaborating with a US start-up Fork Farms to create the farm which will be able to produce 540,000 plants and up to 6,7585kg of food annually – the equivalent of more than three acres (1.2ha) of conventional farmland. Hydroponic farming is a technique that grows plants without using soil. Instead of planting crops in the ground, it uses containers filled with nutrient-rich water to nourish the roots of plants, thus avoiding the need for large areas of land. Rockwell’s installation, called Clock Tower Farms, will be will be located on the fourth floor of its headquarters. More than 70 of Fork Farms’“Flex Acres” systems will be installed. Each Flex Acre is a 3m-high by 3m-long and 1m-wide growing system capable of producing more than 45kg of leafy greens and other vegetables every month. They require less than two hours of maintenance a month, and use 98% less water and 98% less land than traditional farms. “We’re partnering across our industry and within communities to create sustainable impact and change,” says Rockwell chairman and CEO, Blake Moret. “Clock Tower Farms will engage employees and the community while serving as a showcase for manufacturers spanning diverse industries who want to see sustainable solutions in action.” Systems developed by Fork Farms will control the farm’s HVAC, power, dehumidification and water handling needs, allowing crops with differing requirements to grow in the same area at the same time. The farm will use Rockwell technologies to monitor and automatically adjust nutrient, pH and water levels. Rockwell is installing a hydroponic farm at its US HQ INSTALLING ROBOTS CAN cause a company’s profit margins to fall – initially, at least – but as more are added, their margins will start to rise. This is the finding of a team of University of Cambridge researchers who analysed industrial data from the UK and 24 other European countries between 1995 and 2017. The researchers found that at low levels of adoption, robots have a negative effect on profit margins. But at higher levels of adoption, they can help increase profits. According to the researchers, this phenomenon is due to the relationships between cutting costs, developing new processes and innovating new products. While many companies adopt robotic technologies initially to cut costs, this can be copied by competitors, so at low levels of robot adoption, companies focus on their competitors rather than on developing new products. But as levels of adoption increase and robots are integrated fully into a company’s processes, the technologies can help to boost revenues by innovating new products. Firms using robots are likely to focus initially on streamlining their processes before shifting their emphasis to product innovation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “If you look at how the introduction of computers affected productivity, you actually see a slowdown in productivity growth in the 1970s and early 1980s, before productivity starts to rise again, which it did until the financial crisis of 2008,” says the study’s co-author, Professor Chander Velu from Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing. “It’s interesting that a tool meant to increase productivity had the opposite effect, at least at first. We wanted to know whether there is a similar pattern with robotics. “We wanted to know whether companies were using robots to improve processes within the firm, rather than improve the whole business model,” adds coauthor, Dr Philip Chen. “Profit margin can be a useful way to analyse this.” The researchers examined data for 25 EU countries (including the UK, which was a member at the time) between 1995 and 2017. While the data did not drill down to individual companies, the researchers were able to look at whole sectors, mainly in manufacturing. The researchers compared the findings with data from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) to analyse the effect of robotics on profit margins at a country level. “Intuitively, we thought that more robotic technologies would lead to higher profit margins, but the fact that we see this Ushaped curve instead was surprising,” Chen comments. “Initially, firms are adopting robots to create a competitive advantage by lowering costs,” Velu explains. “But process innovation is cheap to copy, and competitors will also adopt robots if it helps them to make their products more cheaply. This then starts to squeeze margins and reduce profit margin.” The researchers suggest that if companies want to reach the profitable side of the U-curve faster, their business model needs to be adapted at the same time as they adopt the robots. Only after robots are fully integrated into their business model can they fully use them to develop new products, driving profits. Adopting industrial robots can cut manufacturers’ profits – at first As companies integrate more robots they tend to become more profitable Image: UR/Hirebotics