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Editorials

Plant Automation's Promising Future: Empowered Management, Simplified Tasks

Acieta, LLC

Robotic automation is changing how factories operate in every manufacturing sector. Efficiencies are improving and production is becoming more stable and consistent. Capacity and productivity are on the rise while employees are better protected from dirty, dangerous activities. Underway in large, medium, and small businesses alike, these changes impact practically every aspect of manufacturing.

The Expanding Role of Manufacturing Robotics

Early adopters, the automotive industry, deployed robots for repetitive, physically demanding tasks. A robotic system for welding a car body is the textbook example. Packaging, palletizing and machine-tending applications soon followed, along with tasks such as dispensing, assembly and inspection.

Today, advances in sensor technology, especially the integration of vision systems, are making manufacturing robotics more flexible. No longer must every part or package be presented exactly the same way. Instead, cameras let robots locate objects within their work envelope — an innovation that simplifies, and even eliminates, expensive presentation and feeding systems.

In parallel, sophisticated simulation software now enables offline robot programming, with minimal program “touch-up” needed before starting or restarting production, changeovers are faster and downtime is reduced.

Future Robotic Automation

Manufacturing robotics technology is advancing in many directions, most notably:

  • Advanced grippers
  • Safety Communications

Grippers are becoming more flexible and dexterous. Increasingly, they can handle irregular shapes while force sensing lets them grip fragile objects, expanding the range of tasks suitable for robotic automation. Jobs once requiring human hands may now be suitable for robots with flexible grippers.

Maintaining safe working conditions historically has meant placing robots in large, floor consuming cages. Today, space and force-sensing technologies are enabling a new breed of ‘collaborative robots’ or ‘cobots.’ Letting humans work directly alongside robots saves valuable space and simplifies implementation.

Once isolated machines, robots now communicate with devices elsewhere in the factory and outside. This “Industrial Internet of Things” or “Industry 4.0” technology, enables remote monitoring, predictive maintenance and higher Overall Equipment Effectiveness as robots, machines, and sensors exchange process information.

How the Robotic Automation System of the Future Will Impact Manufacturing

With help from robots, production will become more predictable, thanks to reduced cycle time variability, improved product consistency and lower defect rates. Breakdowns and unplanned downtime will be prevented, helping drive better schedule adherence and reducing waste.

Freed from reacting to production problems, “fire-fighting” managers will work more proactively, anticipating and planning for future needs.

Increased flexibility will allow greater product and packaging variety. Different pack formats, sizes, grades and options will be possible. Mass customization will become a reality as lead times fall. Demand shifts will be met by quickly reconfiguring manufacturing for new products with minimal expensive dedicated automation to scrap and replace. This flexibility will make robots cost effective for even small manufacturing operations.

Tasks involving injury-causing repetitive motion will all be performed by robots. Workplaces will become safer and manual production work will be minimal. Displaced workers will be redeployed to more engaging, quality-enhancing tasks such as problem solving and product and process innovation, which are more appealing to employees.

A Promising Future

Future robotic automation systems will reduce and eventually eliminate inconsistency and variability from manufacturing. Freed from the need to react to crises, management will take a more proactive stance, planning and preparing for the future.

At the same time, as manual work disappears, some production workers will take on more interesting and varied jobs that improve employee retention. In parallel, others will move into the more skilled work of robot programming and maintenance — teaching new tasks and deploying new systems, as needed.

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