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Developing and promoting the use of industrial robots and automation.

Identifying opportunities for automation.

The task of identifying potential opportunities for automation can sound daunting to some, and experience does show that it is often more complex than first imagined. A good starting point, however, is to perform a detailed and systematic review of your products, processes and objectives as this will help identify the automation opportunities that exist within your manufacturing plant. It is important to remember, however, that the many benefits that automation brings can only be realised when it is implemented for the right reasons and the right application.

With significant amounts of automation already operating within UK manufacturing it is easy to believe that all of the obvious candidates have already been identified. Certainly, within high-volume production facilities across several different industry sectors, this has very much been the case for some time.

Within these particular environments, the few remaining opportunities are often those where the costs to fully automate were deemed prohibitive when first considered, and/or where a certain level of manual input was necessary for quality or dexterity reasons. The introduction of the latest collaborative robot systems, however, may see these operations and applications being viewed today in a different light.

Getting started

Outside of the high-volume manufacturing arena, identifying the most appropriate opportunities for automation is often less obvious. Starting on the road to automation requires consideration of several factors such as: Is the application simple, as may be the case for a part transfer operation or is it complex, as would be the case in a multi-part assembly with several different manufacturing processes. The level of complexity will impact technical risk, the level of in-house skills and expertise required to run and maintain the system and of course the costs to design, build and install the solution.

It is also essential to consider why you wish to automate this operation or application – what are the objectives? Each potential application will likely have a different set of objectives, which may include: improvements in quality, productivity and yield, reductions in manufacturing costs or labour, reducing manufacturing lead times or even just mitigating the effects of skilled labour shortages.

The consistency and repeatability that correctly implemented automation brings will always satisfy the quality, productivity and yield objectives, and reductions in manufacturing costs can in part be achieved from the faster speeds which automation brings to many manufacturing processes.

The products

A detailed review of the products which are manufactured, together with their individual volumes will help provide a clear focus on the range of products which are prime candidates for automation and which will be instrumental in the development of the automation concept. In addition to volume, it is also important to consider whether the parts are automation-friendly, especially in the case of assembly applications. The ethos of design for assembly/automation has been with us for quite some time now so in many cases the parts to be handled are likely to have the consistency and tolerances required for automation.

It is important to build the automation case around the groups or families of products that can most easily be processed without adding significant complexity to the concept by trying to deal with all part variants. In certain cases, the additional complexity and increased costs associated with trying to cater for the very low volume / high mix products, or products that differ significantly in shape or size from the main group, can often have a negative effect on the financial justification of the project, whilst at the same time increasing the technical risk to unacceptable levels.

Re-visiting past cases.

There are certain instances where companies considered automation in the past but discounted it for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the decision not to proceed may have been influenced by the perception of the high complexity and high cost. Other reasons for discounting the opportunity may have been related to difficulties in presenting the parts from automated feeding systems, especially if the range varied significantly in shape and size.

Today, this problem can be solved effectively using Flexible Feeding Systems, which generally comprise of a bulk hopper feed system, a conveyor, a six-axis robot and a machine vision system. This combination of technologies not only allows parts to be fed in random positions and orientations but also makes it possible to cater for a wider range of different shapes and sizes of parts. This approach has become a standard offering from several automation and robot suppliers and teaching the system new parts is usually a straightforward process.

This flexible approach to automation, using robots as opposed to dedicated “hard” automation also aids the justification process in many cases. Whereas a dedicated solution would either require extensive and expensive re-work to re-tool it for new components, or in the worst case be scrapped altogether, robots are easily re-programmed or re-configured for new parts or even new applications.

Fears over the useable life of a dedicated automation system in the past may have led to the imposition of a very short payback period, which in turn deemed the project to be non-feasible. It is worth revisiting cases such as this with the benefit of the much-enhanced capabilities of the many automation technologies available today.

Consider technology advances.

There has never been such a diverse array of automation technologies and modules as we have available to us today. Robots have become faster, easier to use and have a broader range of sizes and payloads. Robots are now collaborative, working beside humans to perform mundane and tedious tasks, freeing up the workforce for the most important tasks.

The advances in robotics are mirrored in many of the other technologies used in the automation world, where the performance has become has become greatly enhanced with wider ranges and the costs of ownership reduced.. The enhanced performance and flexibility of the latest automation technologies do not necessarily mean added complexity, far from it. In many cases, these systems are even easier to use than their older counterparts.

There has never been a better time to consider or reconsider automation. Whilst there is no one-size-fits-all approach to identifying opportunities for automation, the basic rules of thumb are still valid:

  • Consider the complexity of the task you are seeking to automate
  • Clearly identify your objectives – where are you seeking to realise benefits? Is it quality, increased productivity, cost reduction? Or one of the many other benefits that automation can bring?
  • Review and identify the product range to be automated
  • Also, consider whether simple changes to the design of the component parts or the process could make them more “automation friendly”. This can significantly reduce technical risk and cost
  • Consider the levels of flexibility required – if you are a subcontractor you may have less control over the range of products you need to manufacture and therefore require higher levels of flexibility
  • Don’t be put off by fears of complexity – today’s automation is easy to use and manage