The Kingsbury Guide to Automation

For the past decade, automation has slowly been making inroads into almost every industry, and its effect has been most prevalent in the manufacturing industry.

Automation is a concept that seems simple on the surface but is actually a very complex topic. The automation market share is set to reach $240 billion by 2021, with factory automation being the third-largest contributor after process automation and industrial software. 

Discover how automation is used within the manufacturing industry and what the key benefits of automation are in our downloadable guide.

Download the Kingsbury guide to automation



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Boiled down to its most basic definition, automation is the use of technology to do tasks faster, cheaper and more efficiently than humans can. Automation can take on all forms, from lines of software to complex systems that integrate machinery and software to perform exceedingly complex tasks.

The key domains that automation can benefit a company are:

  • Decrease in power consumption by employing more efficient process monitoring and optimisation routines.
  • Reliable quality control by making use of automated monitoring and feedback systems.
  • Data gathering and creating actionable information using machine learning algorithms.
  • Improved production by making use of advanced machinery and systems.
  • Reduction of personnel cost by automating repetitive tasks.

What are the manufacturing applications of automation?

 

 

The manufacturing industry has been relentlessly pursuing automation for as long as manufacturing has existed. The rate of automation adoption has reached a fever pitch, evident from the projected growth of the industrial robot market from $20 billion in 2019 to a projected $42 billion in 2025. It must be noted that automation not only refers to hardware systems but also software systems. Industrial software systems are the second-largest contributors to the automation market share. 

This section explores the various applications of automation in a typical manufacturing facility:

Automated assembly and manufacturing – The most obvious application of automation is the use of hardware systems to automate manufacturing and assemble products. This is done by integrating existing CNC machines with robotic systems and smart software to turn raw materials into finished products with as little human intervention as possible.

Conditional monitoring – In any modern manufacturing facility multiple machines are running at any one moment and they all contribute to the final product; this is why an unexpected breakdown can be catastrophic. With embedded sensors and data analytics the factory can monitor the status of machines and determine well in advance which machines need to be booked for maintenance. This foresight allows production to work around these events when it is most ideal to do so.

Computer integrated manufacturing – This refers to the combination of CAD (Computer-Aided Design), CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) and business processes like inventory control, cost accounting, etc. into one integrated computer system that combines all computer and software systems in a manufacturing company.

The different types of automation

Automation is an incredibly broad topic and can be further explained by breaking it up into the different types, which is discussed below.

Fixed automation

Fixed automation refers to a manufacturing facility in which the sequence of operations is fixed by the equipment configuration. Fixed automation is not easily changed and therefore is used to run continuous operations on a very limited selection of parts. An example of this is a transfer line in an automotive factory. The raw material will enter one side of the transfer line and emerge as a complete part on the other side, often with a very short cycle time.

The line consists of various specialised machines and measuring systems connected by conveyors and robot arms. Measuring systems can be placed between machines to ensure accuracy when the dimensions of an inputted part are critical to the next machine in the line.

Alternatively, a measuring system at the end of the line can be used to check part accuracy and provide feedback to the system if the part is out of spec. The system can then self-correct to dramatically reduce overall wastage.

Flexible automation 

This type of automation is a derivative of programmable automation. Changing over to a new part creates almost no downtime. This is possible because the difference in the parts is relatively insignificant. This means that changes to the programming is trivial and can be easily handled with simple algorithms. This type of automation is best used in areas where there is predictable variability in terms of the types of products that are to be manufactured. An example of this would be a job shop that specialises in manufacturing parts that fall within a limited range. Multipurpose CNCs are often used in these types of set-ups.

Programmable automation 

This type of automation is typically used in factories where there is a need to produce highly customised parts in batch processes. A typical example of this is a job shop environment where the equipment needs to be flexible enough to change as new projects come along. 

The process works as follows: as soon as a new part is ordered, an operator generates the code to manufacture the part. This code is then fed into a CNC machine that uses it to manufacture the part. Then the part can be removed from the CNC with a robotic arm. The robot arm also needs to be programmed to ensure that the part can be safely and securely moved between processes.

Integrated automation 

This type of automation refers to the complete integration of automated systems in the entire life cycle of the part – from computer-aided design and machine programming through to material handling and production planning and control. This is the ultimate goal in automation and is what Industry 4.0 aims to bring about. The idea is to reap the benefits of automation in as many of the processes as possible with little to no human input.

How is the aerospace industry using automation?

Aerospace machines

Aerospace manufacturing is characterised by high precision, accuracy and reliability. The manufacturing quality needed to ensure safe aircraft would not be achievable without advanced manufacturing equipment. However, automation has been slow to take hold in the aerospace industry due to the complexity of manufacturing, strict regulations and traditionally low production volumes. However, the largest aircraft manufacturers have been accumulating immense backlogs and need to look to automation to meet delivery demands.

Due to these backlogs, the focus of automation in the aerospace industry is primarily on increasing throughout while still maintaining the strict quality requirements. Some areas currently being considered are:

  • Automated assembly of some key components.
  • Hole drilling and riveting.
  • Painting and sealing.

How is the automotive industry using automation?

5 axis machining in the automotive industry

The automotive industry has always been a pioneer when it comes to the implementation of automation technologies. This interest in automation arose from the need to create large volumes of complex equipment at high production rates and as cost-effectively as possible.

The main goal of automation is an increase in productivity. There are multiple ways in which this is handled within the automotive industry, for example, robotic arms are used to assemble and move large components like doors and windshields. 

Automation is not only present in the physical domain but also in the cyber domain. Advanced production monitoring is used to pick up potential problems in the manufacturing line and handle them before they cause downtime. This is done by making use of data gathered by embedded sensors, which is then analysed with machine learning algorithms to detect patterns and anomalies in the process. Some examples of this are listed below:

  • Monitoring raw materials levels and ordering new materials when stocks are low.
  • Checking whether parts are in tolerance.
  • Running machine diagnostics to monitor machine health and schedule services.

Another approach to automation is to execute business processes. These can include customer-facing activities like scheduling services, handling call-centre queries and in some cases actually selling cars. The overall philosophy is known as Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

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The benefits of automation

Automation has a long list of benefits; however, the keystone to automation is the need to increase overall productivity. Productivity is defined simply as the rate of output per unit of input. More accurately, productivity is measured in the manufacturing space by dividing the average output by total resources required. These resources take the form of energy, personnel and materials. 

An increase in any of these things for a given output will reduce productivity. Automation has the effect of reducing these factors thereby improving productivity. We understand how productivity is calculated, but what does increased productivity mean? The points below demonstrate ways in which automated equipment and systems improve productivity.

Download the Kingsbury guide to automation



Reduced delays

Delays in the manufacturing process can come from multiple sources such as material supply, machine set-up, inspection and packaging. Some of these factors are not easily controlled,  however, some can be directly addressed with automation. Automation systems make these delays insignificant by automatically moving a part out of a machine when it’s done, using computer vision to inspect the part and then finally sending the part down a conveyor where it will be packaged. Without automation, each of these steps would be much slower and prone to errors.

 

Machine efficiency 

Machines can be multi-role. For example, a robot arm can load raw material into the machine, remove it when done, change tools and move the part to an inspection bay. With the use of automated systems in conjunction with typical CNC machines, the owner can extract the most value out of the machine as it will be able to operate at peak efficiency.

 

Reduced rework & scrap 

Automation further improves productivity by reducing rework. This is made possible by the machines’ ability to automatically monitor tolerances throughout the manufacturing process and alert the operator if these tolerances approach preset upper or lower limits. Continuous monitoring allows trends to be plotted. This allows for machine learning algorithms to determine the most efficient time to change tools or schedule the machine for maintenance. 

Digitisation

Any modern manufacturing factory generates an extremely long paper trail. Managing this paper trail is often a complex and time-consuming task. Even worse is the process of trying to glean useful and actionable information from it. Automation not only refers to physical robotics but data capture and analysis as well. 

Automated data capturing and monitoring can result in significant improvements in productivity. For example, inventory can be monitored in real-time and be re-ordered when stock is low or if a work order is placed. Furthermore, with the inclusion of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors and systems, machines can self-monitor, pull themselves out of proposition while the system reassigns workload to reduce possible downtime and then request a technician to do repairs.

 

Reduced cost 

Reducing costs is one of the key drives for any company because reduced costs result in increased profit. It is, therefore, imperative that any drive to increase production rates does not come at the expense of the bottom line. The initial CAPEX outlay for automation may seem excessive but the ROI is swift. This is due to the massive increase in uptime and productivity that is only possible with automation and robotics. Cost is also further reduced by fewer personnel requirements, improved inventory control and lower energy costs.

Societal benefits of automation

Automation is often seen as something that will strip jobs from unskilled workers. However, in the same way that the steam engine did not ruin society but instead elevated it, the rise of automation will not result in a step back for society. Listed below are some of the ways in which automation will benefit society.

Increased disposable income

One of the most direct benefits of automated manufacturing is reduced costs. These costs can then be passed on to the consumer. Some may say that corporations will decide to keep the proceeds of automation for themselves but the nature of the free market makes this strategy a foolish, short-term one, as there will be a race to the bottom line. Cheaper products will result in more disposable income and, therefore, increased peace of mind due to financial stability, reduced financial anxiety and increased quality of life.

Increased safety

Despite incredibly complex and paper-heavy safety regulations, there is no way to eliminate unsafe working conditions while the key contributor to unsafe actions continues to be the human factor. Automation and robotics can remove humans from unsafe work environments and do the dirty work while humans operate from a distance. Furthermore, new advances in technology have allowed for the development of cobots that can safely work alongside humans with no risk of injury.

Improved product range

Automation allows for highly flexible manufacturing as the system can react and adapt to a new work order with minimal time lost. This means that the age of customised products is fast approaching. Consumers can configure products to match their wants and needs without a negative effect on the production line. Attempting to do this on a scale with traditional non-automated factories can quickly become too complex and costly to manage effectively.

Better jobs

The job market is set to dramatically change with the increased adoption of automation. Repetitive and uncreative jobs will be replaced with jobs that allow people more freedom to solve problems and implement creative solutions while machines handle mundane tasks. It is important to note that this transition will not be automatic, as it will require the reskilling of millions of workers.

Local jobs

Large companies have made a habit of exploiting low-income countries to drive their product costs down and increase profits. With automation, factories can open up locally as the kind of cheap labour that would prohibit this in the past will no longer be required. Instead, high-quality jobs can be created locally with little effect on the cost of products.

Introducing machine tooling into your company 

To begin down the path described by Industry 4.0, it is essential to start with machine tooling that is designed to integrate seamlessly with automation technologies. Whether it be large mill-turns or 6-axis CNC mills, these machines will form the backbone of any drive towards automation. 

Contact a Kingsbury representative to discuss which machine tools fit best with your specific automation requirements.