Manufacturers Need to Adapt, Become more Flexible
The rising demand for personalized manufactured goods means companies need a shop floor agile enough to meet fast-changing production line requirements.

Consumers today are transitioning from being passive buyers into active participants in the product development process. Businesses that fail to adapt risk losing revenue and customer loyalty. For many manufacturers, this means shifting away from providing high-volume products through mass distribution. This change brings the associated cost implications to change shop floor equipment.

Advanced technology tailored for industrial automation has made it easier to design and implement flexible automation, which allow manufacturers to handle product changeovers with minimum downtime.

Industrial automation evolution

The man-industry value chain, constantly driven by the evolution of needs, has moved from handicraft manufacture to industrial manufacture and more recently to research and technological development based industry. Manufacturing has, therefore shifted focus from the requirement for high volumes of undistinguished products at affordable prices to more customized, continuously changing products. Fixed automation was initially developed to produce a single type of product at high volumes at the lowest possible cost.

On the manufacturing floor a few decades ago, fixed automation produced a limited assortment of products manufactured in very large batches. The advantage is the initial cost of fixed automation is lower than its more flexible counterparts, and efficiency is optimized when machines are running only one program. However, with modularity not part of the original factory design brief, any reconfigurations to the production line can be time-consuming and costly.

Programmable automation, the next link in automation's evolutionary chain, can accommodate limited configuration changes after the initial setup. This requires new code to be written as well as the manual changeover of mechanical tools in order for the production line machinery to perform different operations. The changeover process often requires significant labor and machine downtime, thereby still costing the company in efficiency and productivity in the long run.

The most modern approach, flexible automation, is one in which the operator can combine a mixture of recipe control and mechanical automation. By utilizing this combination, processes can be switched seamlessly at the touch of a button, which allows manufacturers to produce a wider range of products on a single production line. It also enables machines to adapt to the next generation of product specifications, as flexible automation equipment uses electromechanical positioning technology for changeovers that are fast and repeatable.

Each type of automated manufacturing has its drawbacks and advantages. The setup cost of fixed automation technology is low, compared to programmable or flexible automation, but the cost-effectiveness decreases as soon as production variations become necessary. Flexible automation, despite a higher initial setup cost, is the most cost-effective option over the total equipment lifetime.

Factories making the transition to Industrie 4.0 can access their endless streams of data in real time to make autonomous decisions to adapt processes and improve efficiency. The focus on maximizing throughput and minimizing downtime for low-volume manufacturing is one of the main drivers of the flexible automation trend. 

Scalable stepping stones

Manufacturers looking to transform their operations from fixed or programmable to flexible automation will want to look for ways to leverage existing technology already available on the shelf to identify a clear path towards maneuvering in this direction.

The trick is to select automation products and solutions that are reliable, scalable, and configurable to a wide range of applications. Technologies such as programmable automation controllers (PACs) and electromechanical actuators provide the building blocks of flexible automation. PACs combine motion and machine control in a single platform; electromechanical actuators accommodate different product sizes and process changes.

As flexible automation takes over, robotic arms will no longer be in one position on the factory floor. They will be moved around using linear mechanical stages in either single- or multi-axis configurations. This will increase the usefulness of the collaborative robot, an articulated arm with increased safety controls, which will be able to work alongside humans. Improved human-machine interfaces (HMIs) will also enable easier recipe changes and on-the-fly adjustment for manufacturers.

Rob Stoppek, vice president, Motion Systems Group Europe, Parker Hannifin. This appeared October 7 on the Control Engineering Europe website. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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