Even if you don’t work in the HR world, you’ve probably heard of cross training employees. This method of teaching workers to do more than one job equips them with multiple skill sets and increases their value to their team, allowing them to fill in or provide reinforcement on an as-needed basis. It’s seen in settings as diverse as the corner coffee shop or a municipal public safety department. When employees can perform their own job as well as the key skills for other positions, it adds a level of flexibility that improves response time and productivity. What you might not know is there are similar benefits in applying this approach to automation equipment in manufacturing.
From fixed to flexible
In the early days of manufacturing automation (picture towering, fenced-in robotic arms in an auto plant), most equipment was dedicated to a single operation or task. Known as fixed automation, this approach is cost effective in that machines are designed and built to repeat one process, and only that process. It works well in large-scale manufacturing where hundreds or thousands of identical parts or processes are needed continuously. Once the part or process is no longer needed, the machine is retooled or replaced with a new one.
In recent years, however, automation equipment has become more flexible, creating new opportunities for small to medium size manufacturers who want to integrate it into their operations. Advances in sensors, vision and motion systems, and even AI mean the same equipment can be deployed for a variety of tasks. For example, consider how a single vision camera can be used for three different tasks: pick-and-place, monitoring object placement, and collision avoidance.
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Equipment flexibility is enhanced by new technology for programming and motion control. “While sensors and actuators once had to be individually connected to robot controllers with dedicated wiring through terminal racks, connectors, and junction boxes, they now use plug-and-play technologies in which components can be connected using simpler network wiring,” according to an article from Mckinsey This makes it easier to build a machine that operates in more than one way or a system with several interconnected components.
The addition of programmable automation control (PAC) technology adds further flexibility. They are similar to a traditional programmable logic controller (PLC), which translate simple inputs and outputs from a device into a movement, such as closing a door when a button is pushed. However, PACs have more processing capability and can control more than one piece of equipment or operation, which means they can be used for more complex tasks that require multiple devices, such as a machine that uses a sensor, conveyor, and robotic arm in a single, coordinated operation.
Flexible automation in action
These changes are particularly useful in high-mix, low-volume manufacturing settings where there is no need to produce the same part day in and day out. In fact, workers may make several different types of parts or assemblies in a single day or shift, or production output changes frequently in response to market demand. There are two ways flexible automation is commonly deployed in these settings.
One method is to create a dedicated cell for a machine that can work with a variety of parts or tasks. Because many machines have the ability to switch out tooling easily, it’s possible to adapt the machine to a range of applications. The latest robotic arm grippers can even be programmed to stay within set parameters based on the job, including object sizes, angles of movement, speeds, grip force, and payload. Motion control software is quickly reprogrammed at the point of use so operators can switch between applications from day to day or shift to shift.
Another method is to set up portable, redeployable robots or other equipment that can be moved to locations around the production floor. Because today’s smaller equipment is designed with human safety in mind, they can be used in close proximity to operators and other workers. Some cobots are equipped with software that lets operators easily program the arm and tooling by manually moving it through the motions of the job. This means there is no need for re-coding or prolonged downtime while the machine is updated, and workers can make adjustments themselves.
In both situations switching from one job to another must be efficient in order to maximize uptime. For example, according to an article in Automation World, changeover for a robot is considered efficient and worth redeploying “if setting up the robot takes 25 percent or less of the time it takes to set up a dedicated machine.”
Even though prices have been coming down for automation equipment and cobots, they’re still a major investment for smaller manufacturers. And the tradeoff for a flexible automation system is that it will probably more expensive initially than dedicated equipment. As always, calculating your ROI is critical. “The number-one way to keep any system productive and paying for itself is to keep it in uptime mode as much as possible,” says Daniel Moore, technical support manager at Universal Robots, quoted in Design News. The bottom line is the more ways and places you find to use it in your facility, the more cost-effective it will become over time.
If you’re interested in automation but wonder if it’s the right investment for your applications, now’s the time to consider emerging, flexible automation technology. With its ability to adapt to your needs easily, it just might be the solution you’re looking for. Contact us to see how.