How automation is helping manufacturing companies
Today’s most advanced automation systems have additional capabilities enabling their use in environments that have not been suitable for automation up to now
Manufacturing automation has been around since the 1970s. Much advances in technology, including robotics, big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things have improved factory production since then.
Cheaper, more capable, and more ﬂexible technologies are accelerating the growth of fully automated production facilities. The key challenge for companies will be deciding how best to harness their power.
This “lights out” production concept—where manufacturing activities and material flows are handled entirely automatically—is becoming an increasingly common attribute of modern manufacturing. In part, the new wave of automation will be driven by the same things that first brought robotics and automation into the workplace: to free human workers from dirty, dull, or dangerous jobs; to improve quality by eliminating errors and reducing variability; and to cut manufacturing costs by replacing increasingly expensive people with ever-cheaper machines. Today’s most advanced automation systems have additional capabilities, however, enabling their use in environments that have not been suitable for automation up to now and allowing the capture of entirely new sources of value in manufacturing.
As robot production has increased, costs have gone down. Over the past 30 years, the average robot price has fallen by half in real terms, and even further relative to labor costs. As demand from emerging economies encourages the production of robots to shift to lower-cost regions, they are likely to become cheaper still.
Rajat Kishore, MD & VP, process automation, Schneider Electric India, says, "In today’s fast moving world with increasing demand and competitive level, there's a need to improve production levels and also maintain growth and quality. In this context, the implementation of robotics and automation is imperative. Robotic automation is more efficient, less error prone, is increasingly cheaper and definitely more adaptable than humans. It is transforming the complete industrial operations in many different ways but the best way to explain that is how it has evolved over the ages."
Robotics is a multi-disciplinary field. Good roboticists, among other things, need to understand systems thinking, advanced programming skills, a good grasp of some algebra, calculus and geometry, skills in technology design to isolate the source of problems and propose effective solutions. In India alone, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), more than three million industrial robots will be in use in factories around the world by 2020.
Highly variable tasks
Today, most of the manufacturing units and factories might not be completely automated, but definitely have some amount of automation deployed in their processes and on the shop floor. Depending on the setup and industry, the level of automation and deployment of robots varies. Ninad Deshpande, head, marketing, B&R Industrial Automation, says, "Robots primarily have been bound by cages on the shop floor for safety. However, today with human robot collaboration, use of cobots is seen increasing. This has helped not only to reduce machine footprint, but also to improve productivity and efficiency. Safety was looked at as a productivity killer. With intelligent and integrated safety in automation, factories can improve machine safety standards as well as improve productivity."
Robots, artificial intelligence and other technologies enabling smart manufacturing hold the potential to drive significant productivity gains, which will accrue to the benefit of workers and the broader economy. There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about the impact of the technological innovation underway.
Deploying automation and robotics can alleviate the way manual tasks were done earlier. They outperform humans specially on assembly tasks with consistency, with correct higher throughput, reliability in carrying out monotonous tasks and have a compact footprint which ultimately delivers lower unit cost. Kishore says, "Automation offers quality products. Repeatable tasks can be delivered with greater reliability and fewer defects. Safety is often ignored and automation builds that in as they handle heavy components and physically demanding processes. It also brings in agility and enables one to reconfigure new production schedules to meet variations in demands and customisation."
Today, it is not only about maximising production and efficiency, but also about optimising production processes and achieving a digital factory. Converging data from operational technology (OT) areas such as automation and robots with IT in the factory is proving to be vital in enhancing processes, efficiency, and productivity. This data has to be analysed and converted into valuable information, which helps factories to take necessary actions.
Implementing predictive maintenance enables factories to reduce unplanned downtimes as well as reduce costs and wastage. It effectively helps to understand potential problems before hand and plan maintenance activities. Predictive maintenance thus helps factories to increase machine and factory availability. Deshpande says, "Mass customisation and batch size one production runs were only concepts owing to economic viability for such small quantities. Digitisation has made it a reality. B&R's versatile industrial transport systems enable product movement through production line more efficient while simultaneously improving quality. These next-generation industrial transport solutions make production lines more flexible, more reliable and faster. ACOPOStrak is a revolution in adaptive manufacturing. This highly flexible transport system extends the economy of mass production down to batches of one. It helps produce small batches efficiently and benefit from higher margins of personalized products. It helps extend digital transformation to include motion control and mechanical design."
Take your pick
Schneider Electric India believes in walking its talk. It has platforms called EcoStructure which are IoT enabled and inter-operable system architecture. "We are leading the digital transformation sector. But for us actually the inner field starts in our own factories, in our operations, in our supply chain and with our partners. We are deploying EcoStructure across our own enterprise and by the end of 2020 we plan to have more than a 100 factories using EcoStructure. On this platform, Schneider Electric is able to demonstrate a number of digitised solutions from smart connected devices to to analytics," says Kishore.
Robots are getting smarter, too. Where early robots blindly followed the same path, and later iterations used lasers or vision systems to detect the orientation of parts and materials, the latest generations of robots can integrate information from multiple sensors and adapt their movements in real time. This allows them, for example, to use force feedback to mimic the skill of a craftsman in grinding, deburring, or polishing applications. They can also make use of more powerful computer technology and big data–style analysis. For instance, they can use spectral analysis to check the quality of a weld as it is being made, dramatically reducing the amount of postmanufacture inspection required.
Today, these factors are helping to boost robot adoption in the kinds of application they already excel at today: repetitive, high-volume production activities. As the cost and complexity of automating tasks with robots goes down, it is likely that the kinds of companies already using robots will use even more of them. In the next five to ten years, however, we expect a more fundamental change in the kinds of tasks for which robots become both technically and economically viable.
The cost savings offered by this kind of low-volume automation will benefit many different kinds of organisations across spectrums: small companies will be able to access robot technology for the first time, and larger ones could increase the variety of their product offerings.