An In-Depth Look at Industrial Automation and Its Impact

Today's automated systems that design and produce goods for consumers or use robots in traditional services like welding and painting are part of an advanced manufacturing strategy. The concept embraces the appropriate use of technology to boost productivity and company profits. Read on and get an in-depth understanding of what this means for your company and bookmark this article to use as a reference.

Is Your Company Well-Equipped?

Innovation that leads to better products and processes takes place in manufacturing more than in any other sector. Advanced manufacturing systems enable companies of all sizes and across industries to more easily customize products, aim for error-free production, and compete on a global scale.

As noted on the web portal manufacturing.gov, "Advanced manufacturing provides the path forward to revitalizing U.S. leadership in manufacturing."

Labor and production as usual will change and must change to meet the rigors of macro issues like global economic trends and micro issues that come via regulatory demands. Trends in multi-shot molding, in-mold labeling and decorating, and composite part fabrication are boosting the demand for advanced manufacturing methods.

The companies that make smart investments in automation will win business and grow market share. Business customers as well as residential consumers will increasingly expect to order products without flaws that arrive at their doors as quickly as possible.

Companies that have implemented new production processes have noticed remarkable improvements in all phases of their work.

What Advanced Manufacturing will Look Like

Would you recognize your company if you stepped away and decisions were made that brought today's technology into your workplace? Both processes and products are impacted by industrial automation. You might recognize the products and be impressed with the consistent finished quality. What else might you notice, or not notice, as you toured the plant?

Consider data. The way data is transmitted as digital and filterable would be a change. In the article Becoming the Factory of the Future, using data well enables a company to "see historical data trends, issues, and events allows companies to take predictive actions to isolate problems, avoid losses, and boost gains when it is most relevant."

The processes in your operation would likely be more flexible with robots that can easily move from one task to another. For small to medium size companies that may not deal in large volumes of products, flexible automation allows them to handle a high mix of products. As noted in the editorial 3 Best Collaborative Robot Applications, a collaborative robot used for a task like machine tending can be relocated in a couple of minutes and taught new positions so that within a half hour it's ready to handle the next task.

Advanced manufacturing won't only mean flexible technology in the plant. In the distribution sector, critical for getting products to market as fast as possible, the latest end of arm tooling functions will be able to switch between handling an item like one shirt in a flimsy package to something as heavy as a barbell while using the same gripper.

Look for enhanced intelligence in robots. The use of technologies like 2D/3D vision in bin picking allows robots to identify items that are not fixed by traditional means. Loose parts are presented and based on sensor feedback, the robot decides how best to pick them. Software will continue to have higher degrees of artificial intelligence that helps eliminate the need for expert programmers and make operations easier for the end user.

Creating and handling custom orders will be a normal operation in the supply chain.

Benefits of Advanced Manufacturing

From small machine shops to craft breweries in the food and beverage space to aerospace, companies are reaping the benefits of advanced automation. They face the same challenges as other businesses like the rising costs of materials and labor. However, they've leveraged the power of automation to improve customer satisfaction, increase sales, and expand operations.

A medium-sized contract manufacturer in New Troy, Michigan, Vickers Engineering, found that throughput has increased and labor costs have been reduced through automation. An unexpected benefit that surfaced was that the work environment became safer.

In the article, How SMEs in the Know Win with Automation Vickers has attracted workers who want to be around technology in a plant in order to have a career and not just a job. Workplace satisfaction has been another benefit.

Product lifecycles are becoming shorter across industries like automotive where changes might happen within a year and a half and in electronics where product changes can occur within several months. The article Robots, the Plastics Molder's Best Friend points out the reality of savings on raw materials in addition to dramatic boosts in productivity.

A person can't simply keep up with the cycle time requirements in a high-speed application. Multi-tasking becomes a reality, as the article notes, with multiple production processes rolled into one cell.

Challenge

There are challenges to investing heavily in advanced manufacturing. Your company might still own equipment that was designed for manual operations. Yet, you know it's time to install equipment that operates via digital communication and software applications.

Not everything will go smoothly if the two systems are merged, says Mitsubishi Electric's Alex Bonaire in Industrial Automation: Q&A with Alex Bonaire on robotics.org. "Companies will often end up discovering inconsistencies in their products and will be tasked with improving their overall manufacturing process." 

Automation's value is to make a part or process exactly the same every time. For companies that invest in advanced manufacturing systems, they'll see a favorable return on their investment within several months to two years. The real value is determined over the long-term as noted in Calculating Your ROI for Robotic Automation: Cost vs. Cash Flow.

A qualified integrator that is certified through the Robotics Industries Association will be an important partner in helping your company lay out a plan to implement technology.

A skilled workforce is also needed to operate and maintain the equipment. Many companies have reported their employees are hesitant to automate, but after that happens, there's pride in their work and people feel they are pursuing a career. Recruiting talent for robot integrators and end users may mean working closely with community colleges to promote specific trade programs as noted in Closing the Skills Gap in Automation.

Security breaches are another concern and were addressed in an article Network Vulnerabilities Keep Automation from Living Up to Full Potential on visiononline.org. Will hackers send viruses that infect your machine-to-machine communication? The concern makes many IT directors curtail the use of capabilities like remote access, but one of the advantages of connected machines is being able to scan data and see sooner rather than later if the system has been compromised.

The future looks bright and promising with the use of advanced manufacturing systems. Stay on top of developments by accessing trainings and first-hand accounts of companies using industrial automation on A3.

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