Getting ahead with automation

Integrating modern automation helps businesses optimise assembly lines and deliver high quality products to customers quickly and efficiently. Here’s how.

Automation Robot Robotic arm
Before integrating automation into production lines, manufacturers must decide why they require automated processes, to ensure they get the best return on investment.

More than 100 years ago, Henry Ford created the first moving assembly line that revolutionised manufacturing. His factories produced the largest number of cars possible at the lowest price by sourcing quality materials, streamlining workflow and ensuring efficiency.

Today, manufacturers may use more advanced equipment – be that hard and soft robots, or programmable automation, but they can still apply Ford’s principles to optimise production.

Why automate?

Before integrating automation into production lines, manufacturers must decide why they require automated processes, to ensure they get the best return on investment.

For example, customers may require bespoke products that older machines cannot produce efficiently. Manufacturers can meet these expectations by accurately assembling products with increased automation, which also helps achieve optimal equipment effectiveness (OEE).

Once manufacturers know why they want to automate their factory, they must decide which processes would benefit most from the upgrade.

Integrated automation can increase production at every stage of the supply chain. Robots, for example, can load original materials onto conveyer belts and move the product between stations, or be used in stations themselves to assemble different components, depending on specific end-of-arm tooling. At the end of the production line, robots can efficiently pack products into cases for delivery.

Each stage of the supply chain requires different technology to best complete its repetitive tasks. Delicate tasks, such as packing fragile parts, require soft robots that can handle products with ease. During manufacturing, visual sensors can detect defective products to help maintain quality and ensure manufacturers only deliver the best products to customers.

Connected Factory
Computers collect, process and store all data from these machines, which is then relayed to plant managers, who can use this data to optimise business strategies in future production.

Connected devices

Machines connected by the Internet of Things (IoT) often communicate during production, streamlining assembly lines to ensure efficient output.

Computers collect, process and store all data from these machines, which is then relayed to plant managers, who can use this data to optimise business strategies in future production. Industrial computers are therefore essential in automated production lines to create smart factories.

As well as optimising the supply chain, manufacturers can integrate automation into administrative processes. Relevant data collected by sensors can be sent to data centres where it is stored. Manufacturers can revisit this data at later stages and use it to optimise future projects.

Retrofitting

Manufacturing new products on an existing assembly line is a frequent challenge that plant managers face. It’s a common myth that factories containing legacy equipment cannot automate their processes due to compatibility issues and lack of technical advancement. However, plant managers can easily integrate automation into their factories by retrofitting equipment.

Retrofitting is often misconceived as a step backwards as it involves replacing older components with more advanced equipment, rather than replacing the whole system. When completed correctly, however, retrofitting extends the life of equipment and reduces the need for future maintenance, improving cost and energy efficiency in the factory.

Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director, EU Automation.
Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director, EU Automation.

For example, some robots on an automated supply chain may only need new end-of-arm tooling and programming to alter its actions and assemble a new product. This reduces the cost of creating separate assembly lines for each product in a factory and increases overall production rates.

Industry 4.0 developments now help merge real and virtual factories by using sensors and web connectivity. With connected assembly lines, factories can control themselves to optimise processes. For example, machines and products can communicate through data collected by sensors to determine what orders should be completed first on production lines.