Manufacturing Automation: It's Not All Robotics
Various buzzwords are thrown about when referring to smart manufacturing today. Automation & robotics are at the forefront and the differences between the two can be a bit confusing when initiating your digitization journey.
With the many advancements within industrial automation, we will review the differences and similarities between automation and robotics, advantages of repositioning to a business model driven by automation and how it can amplify productivity.
Automation or Robotics?
First, if you are looking into beginning your digital transformation journey, the decision between whether automation or robotics is right for your organization might be unclear.
Before you can make a determination, you need to ask the right questions.
- Are your engineers losing valuable time completing tasks that could be completely automated?
- What tasks cause a bottleneck to productivity?
- Are these physical tasks or tasks that can be completed using software?
If you have operations that are mechanically simple and repetitive physical tasks, such as ferrying inventory from one area to another, assembling electronics enclosures, or optically inspecting products for gross issues, they are great candidates for industrial automation or robotics.
For repetitive data collection and analysis based tasks, done manually by people, software platforms can automate the bulk of this activity (and in orders of magnitude faster), so that people are focused on making decisions, not losing time searching, validating and crunching data.
Robotics vs. Automation
Once you have a list of tasks you believe can be optimized by digitization, this should still leave you asking "Should I invest in automation?" and, or "Should I invest in robotics?"
Industrial automation, robotic process automation, test automation...what does it all mean and are these the same things?
The differences are in the definitions.
- Automation - the use of largely automatic equipment or software in a system of manufacturing or other production process.
- Robotics - the branch of technology that deals with the design, construction, operation, and application of robots.
There are some similarities, crossover and blending of both. Robots are typically utilized to automate more physically demanding and/or dangerous tasks, such as automotive manufacturing. Automation on the other hand includes both equipment and software. Software system automation comprises data collection, storage, processing and analysis leading to first order decision making, such as notification alerts.
The banking sector is an example of software automation coupled with industrial equipment automation. ATMs have replaced repetitive human cash and check transaction functions, with software systems networked to them which provide data collection and decision processing, such as transaction fraud detection.
Other more advanced implementations exist in manufacturing plants with software systems commanding a robotic process to execute, based on data processed from prior operations, such as vision based data collection and analysis systems. This is a sophisticated implementation. But not uncommon in industry today. For example, electronics assembly plants have automated optical and x-ray based inspections systems which signal conveyor belts to move product to scrap buckets, or onto the next assembly step.
Costs obviously vary between robotics and automation, with simple machine automation and software based automation generally being lower cost, with faster realizable gains. However, the costs of robotics are falling by orders of magnitude as adoption rates increase. Just look at your Roomba taking care of the weekly house vacuuming.
Automation is vastly applied throughout the globe, and utilized in many different industries from automotive to medical and space/military. Understanding the broad categorization of automation may help aid in your digitization decision making. These categories include: Fixed, Programmable and Flexible.
Fixed automation is perfect for high volume production lines with consistent product design, programmable automation is great for batch sequences, while flexible automation is ideal for elaborate manufacturing lines that include a variety of different products or goods and utilize multiple reference drawings.
Choosing which categories best align with your digitization goals is ideal. Assess your current operations and refer to the answers of the process questions above. This will help you determine whether automation is required, which level and whether or not you need to explore adding robotics.
Advantages of Industrial Automation
The two biggest advocates for adding automation into production are the ability to yield higher output and increased productivity. Despite the claims of high quality from good workmanship by humans, automated systems typically perform the manufacturing process with less variability than human workers, resulting in greater control and consistency of product quality.
For example, within the automobile industry, the installation of pistons into the engine was previously performed manually with an error rate of 1-1.5%. This task is now performed using automated machinery with an error rate of 0.00001%.
In this example, we have gained a bit of insight on how automation can drastically reduce error rates in production. Other key benefits are:
- Efficient use of materials
- Improved product quality
- Improved Safety
- Reduced factory lead times
- Accurate factory and machine data
Software automation, applied to data collection and analytics, yields the same benefits. And ultimately, software is the underpinning to today’s industrial machine and robotics automation.
Research, Research, Research.
Digital transformation is not a one-size-fits-all process. Every production line has different machine and software requirements. These technologies are rapidly adapting to the changing demands of industries and bringing proven benefits to labor costs, factory safety, ROI, product reliability, customer relationships and more. It is best to research which solutions will contain bottlenecks and which create a well-oiled manufacturing environment.
Independently, automation is not a solution to all of your production challenges, but it is a vital part of the Industry 4.0 roadmap.
Ready to increase productivity, get products to market faster and have full traceability over your factory line? Contact us.