Man versus machine

Posted on 3 Jun 2010 by The Manufacturer

Edward Machin investigates automation in manufacturing, one of the industry’s rising stars given its potential to increase machine time, flexibility and reduce waste material. Just don’t mention the whole unemployment thing…

Human labour employed solely to serve their robot masters; Ethernet-based information technology driving all aspects of production; and, at worst, the rendering of entire workforces surplus to requirements. While it may seem like a bleak, dystopian vision lifted from the pages of Orwell, Huxley or Vonnegut, to the uninitiated automation can represent precisely such a nightmare.

However, one has to conduct only a cursory investigation to understand the increasing importance automated processes hold to manufacturers the length and breadth of Britain.

And far from phasing out the decisive role that humans play in maintaining the UK’s worldclass manufacturing base, automation enables companies to become more competitive, thereby protecting jobs. The associated benefits are myriad, too, says Rockwell Automation’s sales director for UK and Ireland, Dominic Molly: increased innovation and productivity; a reduction in material wastage; maximising machine time; and meeting sustainability/energy reduction targets.

China alone is expected to install 100,000 industrial robots by 2015, with increased demand for robotics also seen in the economies of Eastern Europe, South East Asia, India and Russia. “If that doesn’t sound alarm bells, it should,” says Stirling Paatz, managing director of Barr & Paatz, a robot integrator and partner of technology brands such as ABB, Mitsubishi, Stäubli and Festo.

“If we accept robot density as an accurate indicator of automation, then with less than 50 robots per 100,000 people employed in the UK’s manufacturing industry, we are below almost every other advanced or emerging nation,” he adds, ominously.

Siemens/Microsoft case study
Industrial automation is rapidly evolving as information technology drives new levels of efficiency and productivity across the entire value added chain of manufacturers — from product design and development to production, sales and maintenance services.

Seeking to more clearly envision an efficient factory floor, Microsoft turned to a long-time partner, the Siemens Industry Automation Division, a specialist in automation systems, industrial controls and industrial software.

Engineers from both companies sought to conceptualise how information could travel from the factory floor to the IT center and back again — creating a feedback loop that optimises production resources. From their drawing boards came a Proof of Concept (POC) that connects a wide range of factory floor technologies, from sensors to servers, enabling increased levels of efficiency and productivity.

Enterprise connectivity
The Siemens-Microsoft industrial automation POC made its global debut at Hannover Messe 2010, and features production line stations including Enterprise Management, Materials Inbound Logistics, Assembly Line and Quality Assurance.

At the heart of the POC is an end-to-end enterprise connectivity architecture that spans from production line sensors to IT datacenter servers. Realtime access to factory floor data from enterprise applications allows for continuous production process optimisation and increases in overall factory productivity.

The system runs on Siemens’ industrial automation product range that include SIMATIC IPC model such as 19” Rack PCs, Box PCs, embedded PCs, the modular embedded Controller S7-mEC, Mobile Panels, Flat Panel monitors and the failsafe Software PLC SIMATIC WinAC RTX F. Windows Embedded operating systems used for the POC include: Windows Embedded Standard 7 for the specialised devices; Windows Embedded Enterprise for enterpriseclass equipment; Windows Embedded CE for the handheld terminal and Windows Embedded Server for the industrial server appliances.

A solid foundation
The POC looks to give manufacturers confidence by leveraging the highperformance and reliability of the Windows Embedded platform and Siemens industrial automation systems.

For example, as a robust and dependable operating system for all PC-based industrial automation devices, Windows Embedded Standard 7 increases the flexibility and reliability of the complete production line system.

Moreover, safe and secure communication, based on standard web service protocols, enables connectivity between existing legacy systems and modern factory devices — while still supporting firewalls, encryption and real-time networking.

From the manufacturer’s perspective, using Windows Embedded from sensors to servers increases the reusability of existing applications and reduces the need to integrate a multitude of hybrid solutions from different vendors.

From days to minutes
First coined by Ford Motor Company’s vice president, Delmar S. Harder, in 1948, twenty-first century automation is broadly defined as ‘the use of control systems, in concert with other applications of information technology, to control industrial machinery and processes.’ In its wider applications, too, but never more so than with regard to manufacturing, automation wears a coat of many colours. Robotics; motion control; motors and drives; machine safety; wireless connectivity; systems integration; and electrical panels account form but a fraction of its rich tapestry.

Indeed, reducing set-up times in complex applications from days to minutes — as with Inmoco’s Ormec XD Series of Indexer Servo Drives, for example — goes some way to explaining why many in the industry now consider automation very much worth investigating.

Unsurprisingly, and echoing Paatz’s warning call to UK manufacturers, worldwide demand for the gamut of automated tools is increasing. According to data from IFR’s statistical department, for example, which publishes an annual World Robotics study, the global shipments of industrial robots has risen steadily year on year: from 70,000 units in 1998 to 115,000 in 2008.

(Auto)making a comeback
On 5 May 2010, IMS Research, a supplier of market research to the global electronics industry, announced results indicating a strong Q1 performance for the industrial automation electronics market — and predicting growth for the majority of automation equipment in 2010/11.

First quarter 2010 growth will likely have been 25% over that of Q1 2009, during which all regional markets experienced the highest declines. Robust order books developed through both restocking efforts and new orders are expected to lead to a similarly strong second quarter in 2010, IMS says.

Based on a healthy anticipated first half of 2010, even a flat second half will result in close to double-digit revenue growth for most product areas.

Additional findings in the report include:

• During the economic downturn the market for industrial automation electronics equipment was estimated to have declined 14.3% in terms of revenues: from $87.4bn in 2008 to $74.9bn in 2009.

• The low voltage AC & DC drives market — estimated to be worth $8.6bn in 2009 — managed to outperform the low voltage induction motors market, thanks in part to the energy efficiency benefits that drives provide through retrofitting.

• The market for PLCs and I/O modules are tied closely to new machinery and, as a result, experienced significant declines during 2009. However, both are predicted to see double digit growth in 2010.

• Sales in Asia Pacific were buffered by China’s GDP, which remained positive during 2009. Following the region’s strong early recovery from the downturn, it is predicted to grow by 9.6% in 2010, and is forecast to become the largest regional market for industrial automation electronics equipment by 2011.

Given that automation equipment markets — such as PLCs, IPCs and I/O modules — rely heavily on machinery production growth, it is perhaps to be expected that this facet of manufacturing has blossomed with the industry’s wider technological advances.

Explains Michael Hill, managing director of Optima Control Solutions, a specialist in variable speed drive, PLC and SCADA applications: “Picture just about any manufacturing process in any vertical sector, from the automotive industry to food production and all points between, then reflect on how those industries manufacture their products today compared to three, two or even one decade ago. We see profound differences with each passing year.” Manufacturing machinery has increased in its capabilities, complexity, flexibility and reliability.

Similarly, the sector has seen competition develop from beyond our western borders, with automation technology a key component in levelling the playing field. As a result, we all benefit from higher quality product, produced at higher rates and with relatively lower costs. Automation has a lot to answer for… mostly good.”

Robot wars
And so, at last we lay eyes on the elephant in the room — holding that for every push closer to automation there exists a counter-weighted pull towards the dole queue.

Not so, insists Rockwell Automation’s Dominic Molloy. “By investing in automation you will become more competitive on a global scale. In doing so, your organisation thus becomes more profitable, creating additional jobs in the process,” he says.

Hill concurs. “It is a simple model: replacing labour with machinery will result in redundant labour in that particular operation,” he says. “However, failure to do so will result in the same eventuality with a wider and more permanent effect. It is an extremely unfortunate reality, and one that demands serious political consideration.” One practical ramification of this unfortunately reality is highlighted by the British Automation Robotics Association. It cites the example of Nissan’s painted surface inspection system, in which laser lighting is used to detect dust or dirt causing imperfections in a vehicle’s paint work. Introduced — serendipitously, we hear the numerologists cry — in 1984 to an area of production where high levels of concentration were required over extended periods of time, the fault detection rate rose from 60% to 100%.

Automate or die
“How many more old-fashioned factories will go out of business in this country before we grasp the nettle that is automation and invest in our manufacturing sector?” asks Stirling Paatz, managing director of Barr & Paatz, a robot integrator and partner of technology companies including ABB, Mitsubishi, Stäubli and Festo. It is now a matter of automate or die, he says. Paatz gives the following reasons to automate.

Your competitors will.
Rival producers in this country many not automate, but be sure that companies you’ve never heard of on the other side of the world will.

Global competitors are the most likely to steal your next order and those with the leanest, automated manufacturing process will grab market share.

It’s the right time.
Coming out of the recession is a great time to take business from competitors, especially as it is easier to implement new systems when not running at full capacity. There are deals to be done on prices and, when the market improves, you’ll be leaner and more productive.

Cut back labour costs.
Automation allows you to take out labour costs from the production process by using robots to load machine tools, handle raw materials, pick and place components, offload conveyors and replace many manual tasks. They also ease the worry of recruiting, training and retaining labour.

Protect employees’ jobs.
However, automation shouldn’t be seen as a threat to the workforce, but as a means of becoming more productive and competitive, thereby protecting jobs.

Automation increases the revenue generated per employee and allows machine-tenders to be reassigned more demanding tasks.

Robots don’t get sick.
Industrial robots are designed to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with extremely limited downtime. They don’t get sick, need to rest or take regular breaks, nor do they get bored with tedious, repetitive functions, carrying out each cycle precisely as before.

More production flexibility.
Industrial robots increase flexibility in the manufacturing process, whether it’s their ability to handle multiple products in one process, the multi-function flexibility of performing different concurrent tasks or the capacity for reprogramming and deploying as the product mix changes. This, in turn, helps reduce time-to-market and in-process inventory.

Meet safety standards.
Health and safety standards mean restrictions on heavy lifting, handling hazardous materials and working in explosive environments for manual workers — with strict legal sanctions for employers. When the task is potentially difficult or dangerous, a robot can do it instead.

Automation is ‘greener’.
Meeting energy reduction and carbon footprint targets are easier, because today’s servo-controlled robots use less power than hydraulic or pneumatic machinery and can operate in darkened or unheated environments. Robots will also turn off power-consuming peripherals and require less airflow velocity in closed booths.

If not, semi-automate.
If you simply cannot justify the cost of full automation, you should at least consider semi-automation, which entails implementing a robot work cell for a specific production process. A strategic, affordable automated work cell can eliminate a production bottleneck, remove a hazardous manual function and cut associated labour costs.

A Brave New World
Now, it is not to say that humans cannot undertake such tasks with aplomb; simply that machines, given their capacity to virtually eliminate error, do them better.

That said, it remains counter-productive to define the man versus machine debate as a zero sum game alone. Both have critical roles to play in the modern manufacturing eco-system — the success of each, with no little irony, dependant on the endeavours of the other.

“UK manufacturing has always been very innovative and flexible, and to continue to operate in that mode we need to use the technology such as automation and control to make our businesses more successful,” says Rockwell’s Molloy. After all, adds Hill, “I can think of no manufacturing company, in any sector, that would not benefit from automation of some degree.” Cutting through the doublethink, then. With automation and its associated technologies clearly here to stay, UK manufacturers are ensuring that the once-fraught relationship of man and machine now exists in a productive, sustainable harmony.