Automation has been the buzzword for the last couple of decades. If twenty years ago it was viewed as the foggy future only, today things have become real, and automation has taken over pretty much every industry, slowly becoming the new normal.
Manufacturing is one of the industries where automation has been adopted the most. Manufacturing has always heavily relied on human labour, which made it the target number one for automation. Lagging productivity and the inability to compete with foreign manufacturing prompted many companies to look into automation as a possible solution.
So, here we are, witnessing the rise of automation in manufacturing. But what is automation and how does it apply to this industry? This post explores this question in detail. So, sit tight and read on.
What Is Automation in Manufacturing?
Automation in manufacturing refers to the process of automating various manufacturing processes using machines and robots. There are various reasons why a company would assume automation in their manufacturing process, but most of them are pretty common:
- Optimize and speed up manufacturing process
- Improve product quality
- Increase productivity and reduce manufacturing costs
- Reduce accidents
Why Is Automation So Important for Manufacturing?
The role of automation in manufacturing cannot be understated. It’s a powerful tool that can make the manufacturing process faster and more efficient, not to mention that it saves a great deal of operational costs for companies. Among other advantages of automation for the manufacturing industry are:
1. Increased Efficiency:
Automation takes up repetitive and time-consuming tasks and performs them with high precision and consistency, leading to higher output rates and reduced production times.
2. Improved Quality:
Automation reduces human errors and variations, thus leading to fewer defects or eliminating them completely and improving product quality and reliability.
3. Cost Reduction:
Despite the initial investment in automation technology, automation systems help reduce costs associated with labour and operations.
4. Enhanced Safety:
By taking over the dangerous and repetitive tasks, automation systems help reduce chances of injuries and accidents in the workplace.
5. Continuous Operations:
Automation systems allow for a round-the-clock production process, helping companies meet the demands of the market.
6. Data Collection and Analysis:
Automation allows companies to collect data across various stages of the production cycle and use it to improve their manufacturing processes.
Automation systems are able to accommodate changing production volumes, adjusting to the changing needs of the business.
8. Competitive Advantage:
Automation helps companies gain a competitive edge and achieve a sustainable competitive advantage in the market.
It is also worth mentioning that many companies decide to embrace automation these days, leaving those who hesitate behind the competition.
What Are the Types of Automation in Manufacturing?
Manual processes can be automated in many different ways. But not every automation solution is suitable for every manufacturing process. Let’s review some of the most common automation solutions and their applications.
1. Fixed or hard automation
Fixed automation targets specific tasks which most of the time are repetitive by nature. It is not adaptable to changes in the manufacturing process. Examples of fixed automation include assembly lines, packaging lines and dedicated machining centres.
2. Programmable automation
Programmable automation systems can be reconfigured to accommodate changes in the manufacturing process. They are more flexible in this respect than fixed automation systems. If a product design changes, programmable automation systems can be reprogrammed to meet the new requirements. Some of the examples are CNC machines, industrial robots and PLC-based systems.
3. Flexible automation
The beauty of flexible automation systems is that they require minimal reprogramming to meet the various demands of the production process. Examples of flexible automation include computer-integrated and flexible manufacturing systems.
4. CNC machines
CNC machines are one of the most common types of automation. CNC machines are computer-controlled machines which boast accuracy and high precision. They can be programmed to perform a wide range of machining operations such as drilling, cutting, boring and milling.
5. Robotic automation
Robotic automation is used in industrial manufacturing to perform tasks that are either dangerous or repetitive. These are so-called cobots that are designed to work alongside humans. They are used to perform tasks such as welding, painting, assembly and material handling.
6. Material handling automation
Automation in material handling involves the use of conveyors, robotic pick-and-place systems, automated storage and retrieval systems to move materials and products within a production facility.
7. Quality control automation
Automation is also widely being used in the quality control process. It helps monitor various quality control parameters during the manufacturing process.
There are other types of automation, but these are the most common ones. Manufacturers are not restricted to using just one type of automation. For instance, they can rely on CNC machining for cutting and drilling of metal parts and then use robotic automation for welding the metal pieces together. Manufacturers can easily combine a few different systems to achieve the best results.
What Are the Examples of Automation in Manufacturing?
We have covered some of the most common types of automation in manufacturing. But how are they used in real life? The examples we provide below will help you understand how automation can be employed in your industry and how it can improve your manufacturing process.
Use of stationary automation systems
Stationary (or as we mentioned earlier fixed automation systems) may include automated assembly machines, material handling conveyor systems, machining transfer lines, and paint and coating systems, to name a few. Let’s look at the example of conveyor systems.
Conveyors are designed to transfer goods from one place to another or facilitate automated assembly or propelling of goods. Without conveyors, every step of the process, be it packaging or assembly, would be performed by humans. The process would be unnecessarily slow and time-consuming.
Moreover, the risk of human error would be much higher. Conveyors, and belt conveyors in particular, help automate material handling and assembly processes, helping companies save costs and reducing the chances of errors and accidents.
Use of automation software
As you can see, automation is achieved primarily thanks to the use of various machinery. But is there software to help achieve automation goals? There is! Using various software types, like production management, ERP, and inventory management software helps automate a variety of processes. The benefits are doubled if the software is custom-built.
For instance, custom inventory management software enables manufacturers to maintain real-time visibility into their stock, providing them with valuable insight into their inventory state and allowing them to make better decisions. With custom inventory software, companies can maintain optimal inventory levels, reduce waste, and ensure that production lines remain adequately supplied with materials and components needed to make a product.
Moreover, custom inventory management software seamlessly integrates with other systems, facilitating easy data exchange and streamlining decision-making processes.
Use of robots and cobots
The use of robots and cobots is no longer a novelty these days. Many large corporations, like Amazon and Tesla, rely on robots in their manufacturing process, and the reasons are justified. Robots are capable of performing many repetitive tasks. They are fast and precise, and make little to no mistakes, which is another factor affecting the quality of the final product.
Robots help lower the production costs and speed up the output. Robots are capable of performing the following tasks:
- And any other task repetitive by nature.
3D printing is a new level of automation. It has emerged relatively recently, engulfing the manufacturing industry. With 3D printing, companies can print products from scratch. Products can be made from a variety of materials such as plastics, metal, carbon fibre, resins etc.
3D printing has proven to be a more advantageous manufacturing process in many ways. First of all, it ensures a continuous making of a product or part. It is a cost-effective manufacturing process where almost no waste is produced. And if there is waste, it can be recycled and reused.
3D printing technology enables companies to create geometries that were difficult to achieve with traditional manufacturing methods. For instance, inner cavities and holes that change direction can now be easily created using 3D technology. Of course, there are spatial limitations to 3D printing, but the technology is constantly improving, and soon we will be able to print almost anything.
Manufacturing has always been on the target for automation. Due to the high amount of manual labor involved in the manufacturing process, there is a lot of room for process improvement and automation.
Automation comes in different forms, which means businesses have a wide range of options to choose what works best for their circumstances. While acquiring automation technology can’t be called affordable, the key here is to embrace automation rather than shun it. Refusing to adopt the technology can cost businesses much more than embracing it. Whether businesses choose to automate or not, the technology will continue to evolve and will become our normalcy very soon.