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Aiming for a more flexible future

07 October 2017

The rising demand for personalised manufactured goods means that companies now need a shop floor that is agile enough to meet fast-changing production line requirements, says Rob Stoppek, Vice President, Motion Systems Group Europe, Parker Hannifin.

Consumers today have a more direct say when it comes to what they want. Customers are transitioning from being passive buyers into active participants in the product development process. Businesses that fail to adapt to this risk losing revenue and customer loyalty. For many manufacturers this means a huge shift away from providing high-volume products through mass distribution, bringing with it the associated cost implications to change shop floor equipment. However, advanced technology tailored for industrial automation has made it easier to design and implement flexible automation, allowing manufacturers to handle product changeovers with the minimum amount of downtime.

The automation evolution on
The man-industry value chain, constantly driven by the evolution of needs, has moved from handicraft manufacture to industrial manufacture and more recently to research and technological development based industry. Manufacturing has, therefore shifted focus from the requirement for high volumes of undistinguished products at affordable prices to more customised, continuously changing products.

Fixed automation was initially developed to produce a single type of product at high volumes at the lowest possible cost. On the manufacturing floor a few decades ago, fixed automation produced a limited assortment of products manufactured in very large batches. The advantage of this is that the initial cost of fixed automation is lower than its more flexible counterparts, and efficiency is optimised when machines are running only one programme. However, with modularity not part of the original factory design brief, any reconfigurations to the production line can be time-consuming and costly to implement.

Programmable automation – which is the next link in automation’s evolutionary chain – can accommodate limited configuration changes after the initial setup. This requires new code needing to be written as well as the manual changeover of mechanical tools in order for the production line machinery to perform different operations. The changeover process often requires significant amounts of labour and machine downtime, thereby still costing the company in efficiency and productivity in the long run.

The most modern approach, flexible automation, is one in which the operator can combine a mixture of recipe control and mechanical automation. By utilising this combination, processes can be switched seamlessly at the touch of a button, meaning that manufacturers can produce a wider range of products on a single production line. It also enables machines to adapt to the next generation of product specifications, as fully flexible automation equipment usually uses electromechanical positioning technology for changeovers that are fast and highly repeatable.

Each type of automated manufacturing has its drawbacks and advantages. The setup cost of fixed automation technology is low, compared to programmable or flexible automation, but the cost-effectiveness decreases sharply as soon as variations in production become necessary. Flexible automation on the other hand is the most cost-effective option over the total equipment lifetime, despite a higher initial setup cost.

Factories are now making the transition to Industry 4.0, and these smart factories, with an endless stream of data, can access the data in real time, and make autonomous decisions to adapt processes and improve efficiency. The focus on maximising throughput and minimising downtime for low volume manufacturing is one of the main drivers of the flexible automation trend. 

Using scalable stepping stones
How will manufacturers transform their operations from fixed or programmable to flexible automation? Ideally they will want to look for ways to leverage existing technology that is already available on the shelf to identify a clear path towards maneuvering in this direction.

The trick will be to select automation products and solutions that will be reliable, scalable and configurable to a wide range of applications. The emergence of technologies such as programmable automation controllers and electromechanical actuators already provide the building blocks of flexible automation. The former by combining motion and machine control in a single platform and the latter by seamlessly accommodating different product sizes and process changes. 

As flexible automation takes over, robotic arms will cease to be fixed in one position on the factory floor, but will be able to be moved around using linear mechanical stages in either single- or multi-axis configurations. This will increase the usefulness of the collaborative robot, an articulated arm with increased safety controls that will be able to work alongside humans. Improved HMIs will also enable easier recipe changes and on-the-fly adjustment.

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