Manufacturers across various industries choose automation to improve quality, boost productivity, and save labor costs. Manufacturing companies can integrate multiple forms of robotics, conveyance, vision, or other automated technology to complete production tasks. Learn more about how manufacturers use robotics and automation to improve their production lines below.
Manufacturing automation includes using advanced technology, including robotics, vision, and software, to streamline and optimize production processes. Manufacturing automation can take many forms, such as using autonomous robotics to handle parts and products in strategic areas. It can also include using artificial intelligence and high-speed cameras to find errors in products. Many manufacturing companies will invest in at least one form of automation, from a single robot to a fully automated production line.
Automation has become synonymous with using robotics and machines to reduce or replace work traditionally done by employees. But robotics is only one part of how automation works in the manufacturing industry. Robotics like three- or six-axis robotic arms can be used for material handling and pick-and-place tasks, completing them faster and more efficiently than through labor alone. These industrial robotic applications can improve high-volume, repeatable processes, such as orienting a part on a conveyor belt and lifting heavy objects. Controls engineers can program robotics to do the same task the same way every time, or, using more advanced technology, they can program them to be more flexible.
Not every manufacturing company will use robotics in every part of their production line. A manufacturer must define their problem before seeking a solution that solves that problem. Robotics may not be the right solution for a low-volume, delicate production process. For this reason, manufacturers should work with an experienced robotics integrator to ensure the solution they choose will improve their efficiency, uptime, and quality.
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Factory robotics have been used since 1961 when General Motors first added the heavy-lifting Unimate robotic arm to transport die castings for welding on car bodies (a task that was unsafe for human workers to perform).
However, the automation robots (and cobots) in use today are vastly more advanced and affordable than when Unimate’s patent was filed, and are now capable of a wide variety of tasks:
- High-performance AC servo motors (a big upgrade from the hydraulic motors of the past) that now power factory robots reduce friction while improving flexibility and allowing exacting standards of precision in controlling velocity, torque and position.
- Vision systems like laser scanners enable robots to “see” and understand both their surroundings and workpieces they are tasked to interact with; they can perform advanced tasks like recognizing and selecting components from bins, completing complex sequences of events to those components, and inspecting them for quality control with micron-level precision
- The “Internet of Things” (IoT) can sync factory robotics with the rest of a manufacturers’ operations - connecting an entire manufacturing operation’s supply chain by integrating data from each machine to a single source of truth to eliminate bottlenecks and improve output and efficiency.
- Advances in computing driven by algorithms allow robots to learn faster based on less information to monitor their own needs for preventative maintenance, and perform tasks with and alongside human workers.
Best of all, as manufacturers have increased their investment in factory robotics and automation, the costs have decreased (and are projected to become even more affordable over the next few years).
Robotics isn't the only automation solution available. Digital solutions, that entail custom software, the Internet of Things, and other advanced technology, help your machines communicate with each other and share better data with your operators, engineers, quality control team and management. Software and networking solutions can improve assembly processing, quality inspection, and inventory management. Further, digital solutions allow management to extract analytics to measure success and improve production planning.
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There are typically two types of applications for which manufacturers use robots: repetitive and adaptive or flexible applications. Some manufacturers use robotics to automate repetitive, menial tasks such as material handling and assembly. Industrial robots can typically complete these tasks faster and improve repeatability and quality. Common use cases of repetitive or fixed automation include:
- Material handling
- Material dispensing
- Material removal
- Palletization and de-palletizing
The second common use case is adaptive or flexible automation. As robotics and automation become more advanced, automated robots' assigned tasks can be more flexible and adaptive. Instead of programming a robot to make the same motion over and over, some robots paired with other technologies can adapt to different parts and products with limited shutdown and reprogramming time. Manufacturers may pair flexible automation with remote monitoring and remote programming options so they can view and make changes off-site.
In today’s manufacturing collaborative robots now allow operators to safely work within close proximity. Collaborative robots have enabled facilities to optimize workforces by using these robots to handle more of the mundane tasks previously done by operators.
The benefits of robotics and automation in manufacturing are multifold. Manufacturers who install robotics and automation solutions into their production lines can improve productivity, accuracy, repeatability, and quality. Customers who have combined robotics, vision, conveyance, force sensing, and other advanced technologies in a total automation solution have seen a high return on investment and used the data from the machines to make better, more strategic planning decisions.
Automation and robotics are tools to meet your goals, but they are not a strategy. Working with an experienced automation partner can help you establish the right plan for automation. Manufacturers who have a clear problem statement and measurable goals can ensure their automation solution is in the right place and adding value to production processes. JR Automation has decades of experience helping our customers improve their production lines with automation solutions.
Automation and robotics solutions in manufacturing are expanding and will continue to change the manufacturing plant. Manufacturers have realized that connecting their machines with networking and using that data to make decisions improves their business. And that is just the start of Industry 4.0.
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