To most of us, automation in manufacturing is nothing new. However, it is often associated with state-of-the-art factories that produce the latest technology. Yet, automation is present in nearly all factories, at least to some extent. Some plants only have a single automated operation while others have completely automated their production lines. So, what exactly is automation? When is it useful? And, what are the forms? In this article, I will explain the different automation possibilities in manufacturing.
Automation in General
Automation is an automatically performed process by means of machinery with sensing and control devices. It is often applied to products which have standardized processing requirements. That is to say, products which are made repeatedly in the exact same manner. Automation has many advantages. For example, a constant level of quality and output. Moreover, it eliminates many worker problems such as boredom and labor complaints. However, there are also some disadvantages to automation. First of all, it can be quite expensive due to machinery and equipment. And, second of all, it is much less flexible than human labor. In manufacturing, there are three different forms of automation: programmable, fixed, and flexible automation.
Programmable automation is capable of producing a fairly wide variety of goods in small batches. The machinery involved constitutes general purpose equipment. Hence, the sequence of operations, and the details of each operation, can be modified for different products. The machines most frequently used for this type of automation are numerically controlled (N/C) machines, and robots.
N/C Machines (aka CNC)
N/C machines can be programmed to follow a set of processing instructions. For example, cutting a piece of plastic or metal into a specific shape. N/C machines are very useful for items with a complex geometry, and where little to no variation is allowed in a physical dimension. Below is an example of different N/C machine used for different items.
Robots are also often used in manufacturing. Like, CNC machines, these robots are controlled by computers. Most industrial robots are stationary. Their movable arms can rotate in somewhat any position within a certain radius. Tasks performed by robots include welding, assembly, painting and many more. Of course, there is a great variety of robots out there. Some are only capable of following a simple set of instructions, while others are capable of thinking for themselves.
Fixed automation is used to process highly standardised goods in large quantities. This type of automation is characterized by highly specialized equipment. The sequence of operations is fixed, and processing variety is minimal. Machines frequently used by this type of process are automatic assembly machines and transfer lines. Because commands are often programmed and embedded in the machine itself, it is fairly difficult to change a machine’s intended purpose. Hence the word fixed automation.
Automatic Assembly Machine
Automatic assembly machines are designed to assemble a specific component/product. They are especially useful for plastic and metal parts as well as plastic moldings. Basic requirements for this type of automation are stable designs and high production volumes i.e. several hundred units per hour. Some of the greatest advantages of an AA machines is that it reduces the number of assembly stations needed and lowers tooling costs.
A transfer lines is an automatic material handling system. Meaning, items are automatically transported to different process stations. Transfer lines are used for all kinds of parts and components such as electronic parts and automotive parts. Items can be processed at the same speed or at different speeds.
Flexible automation is a descendant from programmable automation. However, this type of automation has more customized equipment than its predecessor. Therefore, this form can produce several different product variations consecutively. That is to say, products do not need to be identical to be produced during the same process. Due to this feature, changeover time is significantly reduced. To illustrate, programmable automation is only capable of producing one specific item at the time i.e. batch production. Whenever different items are to be produced, machines need to be re-programmed which is referred to as changeover time.
In short, automation in manufacturing is a process which is automatically performed by means of machinery. There are three different forms of automation. Programmable, fixed, and flexible automation. Each type of automation has its own advantages for different purposes. The type of automation most suitable for you depends on the characteristics of your product, flexibility required and desired volume of output. Whichever option you choose, it is always wise to conduct an operations engineer before you commit yourself to a specific form.