Automation Explained

What is Automation

The Oxford Dictionary definition of Automation is  “The use or introduction of automatic equipment in a manufacturing or other process or facility”. Whilst this is a perfectly adequate high-level definition of the term, what does Automation really mean to different industries and individual manufacturing companies?

For many, the term automation will be immediately associated with the automotive sector, which undoubtedly has some of the highest levels of automation within any manufacturing environment. The automotive sector has also been instrumental in driving the implementation of automation within its vast supply chain, spreading awareness of the opportunities and benefits that can be realised by manufacturers.

Automation, however, exists in many different forms and in a diverse range of industries outwith the automotive sector. Automation therefore means different things to different people, not least the scale of what would be termed automation. For many companies, starting out on the road to automate does not mean investing in high capital cost multi-robot systems or bespoke designed special purpose machines.

The first, and sometimes tentative steps, into automation can often mean taking control of a single process or manufacturing step, usually within an existing manual line, using relatively simple technology. This may be as basic as adding measurement or sensing devices to provide data or feedback on a process, or implementing a very simple mechanical mechanism for part handling / transfer operations. Whilst these examples may be considered very low-level automation, there are still tangible benefits such as the acquisition of process parameters for each cycle – valuable information for process monitoring and a predictable and repeatable cycle time for the transfer operation, which can aid the balancing of downstream operations.

The simple example above of acquiring process information through sensors is the concept at the heart of mainstream process manufacturing lines, where flow, pressure, temperature, humidity and many other process attributes are measured and monitored continually to ensure a stable and reliable process. Automation here is visible only through the screens of the system monitors, with no fast moving robot arms or mechanical systems to be seen.

Automation need not be an all encompassing philosophy involving a start to finish approach. There are many instances where technology can be implemented as stand alone systems or “Islands of Automation”. In these cases there may be a particular operation or process within an overall manufacturing line that would benefit from an automated approach.

The reasons for selecting these operations can be wide and varied but examples might include: isolating an operator from potentially hazardous materials or substances. In this example an operator can be freed from the sometimes cumbersome personal protection equipment needed for the manual process, improving both safety and the operator’s work environment. Other examples may include the production of a sub assembly, comprising 2 or more parts. In this instance the use of vibratory bowl feeding equipment to orientate and present the parts ready for assembly is in itself a level of automation. Whilst the parts may then be picked and assembled automatically using a robot or dedicated mechanisms, there are applications where automated feeding equipment is used to present the parts correctly orientated for an operator, who will then perform any additional operations. A much lower level, but automation none the less. For some, starting small and realising the benefits that automation can bring to manufacturing processes will build confidence overall, ultimately leading to further investment and more sophisticated systems. The introduction of automation, even at relatively low levels can deliver significant improvements in quality and yield. Taking control of a process or task using automation immediately brings levels of consistency and repeatability generally unachievable or unsustainable in a manual environment.  Measurements made using sensors will not be subject to change or deviation resulting from operator fatigue and processes where materials are dispensed can be made more efficient due to the inherent control and consistency within the automated process.

Automation, in its broader sense, is the tool that many companies use to bring measurable consistency, improved productivity and higher yield to their manufacturing processes. The way that this is achieved will be different for each manufacturer and ultimately driven by the unique characteristics of individual products and processes.

Is Automation Right for you?

The frequency with which this question is asked often depends upon the industry sector you operate within and the size of the company. It is clear that high levels of automation are an absolute necessity in the car industry, but what about other sectors? Also, is automation the right solution for SME’s or is it only appropriate for large companies with high volume production? Consider the potential opportunities in more detail and you might be surprised to find that automation is right for you.

Historically, there have been many perceived barriers to automation including concerns over cost, complexity and in-house skill levels. Whilst these may have had some validity in the past, by comparison, today’s robot systems are very affordable, simple to operate, fast and flexible, plus industry as a whole now has a generation of engineers with robot and automation experience.

Even with these positive factors the uptake of automation within UK manufacturing continues to lag behind that of our European cousins. This means that there are undoubtedly still a host of opportunities for UK manufacturers in many sectors to take advantage of this technology and use it to enhance their business and strengthen their competitive advantage.

The dynamic and highly competitive nature of today’s marketplace, combined with changing regulatory requirements in medical, healthcare and food, plus the trend towards vehicle personalisation within the automotive sector, means that automation will continue to play an increasingly important role in a variety of manufacturing sectors.

The common reasons cited by companies for believing that automation is not appropriate for them include: it’s too expensive, volumes are too low, product mix is too high, or the process needs human intervention for dexterity or inspection purposes. It is true that automation requires both justification and a return on investment, and at lower volumes this will be a more difficult calculation. However, by taking into account other factors such as ergonomic benefits, improved health and safety, quality and yield improvements, reduced skill levels and the ability to implement changeovers more quickly, the case for automating may become much stronger.

Taking a longer term view on the investment required to automate, especially if the system includes robots, can make a significant difference. After all, the robots will remain at peak performance for many years and just having taken the step to automate can often strengthen the customer supplier relationship.

In the case of a high product mix, automation is not only able to deal with multiple product variants, but brings with it greater levels of process and quality control. High levels of flexibility can be built into both robotic or special purpose automation. The combination of robots, machine vision and a flexible parts feeding system make it possible for different product variants to be handled easily with a minimum of downtime or operator intervention. Incorporating bar codes and or 2D matrix codes makes it possible for the system to self validate that the products being produced match the planned production schedule, eliminating incorrect product variants – essential in medical and healthcare applications.

Whilst there will always be some applications where operator intervention will be required, the flexibility of the latest multi-axis robot systems combined with innovative gripper design concepts, mean that tasks which were once only possible with human dexterity can now be achieved through the use of automation. The introduction of collaborative robots opens up new opportunities where the benefits of both the robot and the human can combine to improve the manufacturing process. The high-resolution cameras used in the latest machine vision systems, and the extensive library of image processing algorithms at the disposal of vision engineers have made it possible for vision systems to perform inspection tasks which were once only possible with human vision. Automated inspection is a valuable addition to any manufacturing process irrespective of the volume.

The answer to the question “Is automation right for you?” may well be a resounding yes, given the capabilities of the latest robot and automation systems and if all of the potential benefits are included as part of the justification.

Identifying Opportunities for Automation

The task of identifying potential opportunities for automation can sound daunting to some, and experience does show that it is often more complex than first imagined. A good starting point however, is to perform a detailed and systematic review of your products, processes and objectives as this will help identify the automation opportunities that exist within your manufacturing plant. It is important to remember however, that the many benefits that automation brings can only be realised when it is implemented for the right reasons and for the right application.

With significant amounts of automation already operating within UK manufacturing it is easy to believe that all of the obvious candidates have already been identified. Certainly within high volume production facilities across a number of different industry sectors, this has very much been the case for some time.

Within these particular environments, the few remaining opportunities are often those where the costs to fully automate were deemed prohibitive when first considered, and / or where a certain level of manual input was absolutely necessary for quality or dexterity reasons. The introduction of the latest collaborative robot systems however, may see these operations and applications being viewed today in a different light.

Getting Started

Outside of the high volume manufacturing arena, identifying the most appropriate opportunities for automation is often less obvious. Starting out on the road to automation requires consideration of a number of factors such as: Is the application simple, as may be the case for a part transfer operation or is it complex, as would be the case in a multi part assembly with several different manufacturing processes. The level of complexity will impact technical risk, the level of in-house skills and expertise required to run and maintain the system and of course the costs to design, build and install the solution.

It is also essential to consider why you wish to automate this operation or application – what are the objectives? Each potential application will likely have a different set of objectives, which may include: improvements in quality, productivity and yield, reductions in manufacturing costs or labour, reducing manufacturing lead times or even just mitigating the effects of skilled labour shortages.

The consistency and repeatability that correctly implemented automation brings will always satisfy the quality, productivity and yield objectives, and reductions in manufacturing costs can in part be achieved from the faster speeds which automation brings to many manufacturing processes.                                                                                 

The Products

A detailed review of the products which are manufactured, together with their individual volumes will help provide a clear focus on the range products which are prime candidates for automation and which will be instrumental in the development the automation concept. In addition to volume, it is also important to consider whether the parts are automation friendly, especially in the case of assembly applications. The ethos of design for assembly / automation has been with us for quite some time now so in many cases the parts to be handled are likely to have the consistency and tolerances required for automation.

It is important to build the automation case around the groups or families of products that can most easily be processed without adding significant complexity to the concept by trying to deal with all part variants. In certain cases, the additional complexity and increased costs associated with trying to cater for the very low volume / high mix products, or products that differ significantly in shape or size from the main group, can often have a negative effect on the financial justification of the project, whilst at the same time increasing the technical risk to unacceptable levels.

Re-Visiting Past Cases

There are certain instances where companies considered automation in the past but discounted it for a variety of reasons. In some cases the decision not to proceed may have been influenced by the perception of the high complexity and high cost. Other reasons for discounting the opportunity may have been related to difficulties in presenting the parts from automated feeding systems, especially if the range varied significantly in shape and size.

Today, this problem can be solved effectively using Flexible Feeding Systems, which generally comprise of a bulk hopper feed system, a conveyor, a 6 axis robot and a machine vision system. This combination of technologies not only allows parts to be fed in random positions and orientations, but also makes it possible to cater for a wider range of different shapes and sizes of part. This approach has become a standard offering from a number of automation and robot suppliers and teaching the system new parts is usually a straightforward process.

This flexible approach to automation, using robots as opposed to dedicated “hard” automation also aids the justification process in many cases. Whereas a dedicated solution would either require extensive and expensive re-work to re-tool it for new components, or in the worst case be scrapped altogether, robots are easily re-programmed or re-configured for new parts or even new applications.

Fears over the useable life of a dedicated automation system in the past may have led to the imposition of a very short payback period, which in turn deemed the project to be non feasible. It is worth re-visiting cases such as this with the benefit of the much-enhanced capabilities of the many automation technologies available today.

Consider Technology Advances

There has never been such a diverse array of automation technologies and modules as we have available to us today. Robots have become faster, easier to use and have a much broader range of sizes and payloads. Robots are now collaborative, working beside humans to perform the mundane and tedious tasks, freeing up the workforce for the most important tasks.

The advances in robotics are mirrored in many of the other technologies used in the automation world, where the performance has become much enhanced, the range wider and the costs of ownership reduced. The enhanced performance and flexibility of the latest automation technologies does not necessarily mean added complexity, far from it. In many cases these systems are even easier to use than their older counterparts.

There has never been a better time to consider or re-consider automation. Whilst there is no one size fits all approach to identifying opportunities for automation, the basic rules of thumb are still valid:

  • Consider the complexity of the task you are seeking to automate
  • Clearly identify your objectives – where are you seeking to realise benefits? Is it quality, increased productivity, cost reduction? or one of the many other benefits that automation can bring?
  • Review and identify the product range to be automated.
  • Also consider whether simple changes to the design of the component parts or the process could make them more “automation friendly”. This can significantly reduce technical risk and cost.
  • Consider the levels of flexibility required – if you are a subcontractor you may have less control over the range of products you need to manufacture and therefore require higher levels of flexibility
  • Don’t be put off by fears of complexity – today’s automation is easy to use and manage