Automation: Then and Now

White robotic arm for welding in factory ** Note: Shallow depth of field

Automated systems aren't only for industry Big Players in North America. Medium-sized businesses and small operations can now benefit from systems that adapt to different work environments and are flexible compared to fixed work cells that dominated factory floors.

Most sales of automated equipment were made primarily to the automotive and electronics industries during the past decade. In the last few years though, small manufacturing companies making diverse products such as shelving, doors, and custom car kits are investing in automation to slash work times and reduce labor costs while boosting profitability. Automated solutions are available for a wide range of customers.

Here are key ways automation has made a favorable impact on industry today.

Industries

A brief look at the past decade shows how the use of automation has gone from primarily the automotive industry and manufacturing companies to diverse industries. This quote from a 2001 article, Robots Take Over Automotive Plant Floors, shows how automation was focused in one main area: "Ninety percent of the robots in the world work in factories, and fully half of those help manufacture cars."

The economic downturn following September 11, 2001 caused a dip in sales of robotics and other automated equipment. The write-up 2003 Robotics Industry Outlook: Robot Companies have Hopes for Recovery projected a positive outlook with sales greater than the year before but not as strong as in 2000.

Automotive and electronics customers were the greatest users of automation but new uses in automation were being tested for warehouse and distribution and the food processing industries.

A shift has occurred. Automotive and related components accounted for 71 percent of robotics sales in 2005 but dropped to 57 percent of all sales in 2013 in a year when orders for automated systems were on the rise. This has been great for the robotics and automation industry as it has diversified.

In 2014, small companies in the food processing industry were seen as a major force in the purchase of automation and more growth is expected as written about in Robots with an Appetite for Food.

Equipment Changes and Trends

Hardware like cams, gears, and the attached wiring is known as fixed automation and the equipment cannot be adapted for new product lines or needs. That standard has given way to flexible systems that can be re-programmed when new product lines are developed. The write-up Increased Competitiveness through Automation features an engineer with Baxter Health Care saying, "We now have the ability to re-program the robot and re-fixture the part for the existing line or another product line in the future."

Troubleshooting is one area that's getting easier with an array of technologies. In motion control systems, engineers are better able to solve problems in areas known as soft motion compared to a decade ago as noted in New Trends in Soft Motion.

Collaboration

Robots have been used in manufacturing for 50 years and the equipment excels in performing repetitive tasks. In 2002, in an article on robotic finishing applications, companies were aware of a technological shortcoming: "Robots, while lacking the human senses of sight and touch, do possess the ability to replay their programmed path with a great deal of repeatability."

Programs using finely-tuned sensors now allow automated systems to adapt in different environments with an "eye" for quality that only people possessed. In 2011, robots were being used more widely in biomedical and clinical laboratories, a place where they weren't involved in the middle part of the decade.

More robots are now made to safely work alongside people in settings as diverse as factories and hospitals. In warehouses, systems can select which packages to bypass and which ones to select. Workers supervising the automated systems are now empowered to do minimal programming and make the systems adapt to the needs of the moment.

Cost is another change that has occurred. Companies like Epson are making high performance robots with price tags starting around $ 12,000. Just like digital technology has transformed personal computing and the use of phones, automation will continue developing and responding to allow companies in all industries to be more productive and more profitable.

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