Industrial Automation 101


Goals | Types | Systems

Industrial facilities such as factories and warehouses are increasingly utilizing industrial automation to become more efficient and realize other benefits of increased technology. In this article, we’ll discuss what industrial automation is, the benefits of switching to more automated systems, and the different types of industrial automation systems available.

What is Industrial Automation?

Industrial automation is the use of robotics and automated processes that can handle some or all of the tasks of manufacturing, packaging, and transporting industrial goods without human intervention. Automation systems can be centrally controlled and can include numerous types of technology, such as machine tools, robotics, conveyors, automated valves, and much more, ultimately allowing items to move seamlessly between processes without the need for direct operator action.

Goals of Industrial Automation

Switching to a completely automated industrial system or automating portions of an operation brings many advantages over traditional manual processes. Industrial automation is an excellent tool for reaching milestones and process improvement goals for your facilities. Some of the key advantages of industrial automation include:

Improved Quality

Computer-controlled machinery follows precise sets of instructions to handle everything from machining workpieces to boxing and labeling finished products. Because most automation systems don’t deviate from their programmed instructions, there is little risk of unexpected variation and the risk of human error is largely mitigated. Machines can follow programmed instructions hundreds of thousands of times, which leads to much more consistent output without costly mistakes.
Another key factor that improves output quality is inspections. Automated inspection equipment can quickly and robustly inspect items at progressive stages of completion to ensure the products are being produced correctly and within acceptable tolerances. Inspection tools and sensors can also monitor the automated equipment itself, which ensures better performance and product quality.

Higher Productivity

Automated machinery typically works faster than manual operators. Production lines and other industrial systems can be optimized to produce thousands of units per minute or per hour, depending on the complexity. They can also operate continuously without pausing for breaks or shift changes. In manufacturing settings, this facilitates what is known as Lights Out capability, wherein production continues overnight after operators have gone home.

Partially automated processes with human operators or managers also see substantial increases in productivity as the automated solutions take on repetitive tasks and free up employees to perform other tasks.

Wider Range of Capabilities

Computer numerical control (CNC) machines can handle a robust array of different functions to create complex parts or follow intricate design file instructions. As soon as the machinery is given a new set of programmed directions and associated tooling, it can easily switch to new operations and processes. This gives a facility with CNC machinery more capabilities and maintains a higher rate of production over manual shops.

Improved Worker Safety

Separating workers from dangerous or heavy materials, sharp tools, and fast-moving conveyance equipment is a crucial step for improving workplace safety. By handing more operations to computer-controlled equipment, companies keep their workers safer from accidents. Automation also significantly reduces the risk of repetitive stress injuries or injuries from lifting, moving heavy items throughout the day. Solutions may also be deployed to mitigate employee exposure to heat, cold, and chemicals, further reducing on-the-job risks.

Types of Industrial Automation

There are multiple different types of industrial automation systems. Just like there are a wide range of facilities that handle fabrication, machining, finishing, and more, there are systems that can handle specific categories of tasks. Even within a set category such as manufacturing, there are different types of industrial automation systems that range from only being able to handle limited tasks to systems that dynamically respond to different inputs and changing situations.

Some of the most commonly deployed automation system types include:

Fixed Automation System

Fixed automation systems are limited. They handle a fixed set of tasks, or operations, with little room for modification or flexibility. This is ideal for facilities that specialize in manufacturing large orders of the same product, require specialized equipment, or need systems that can perform the same function continuously (such as conveyors). Fixed systems also offer top-tier speed and accuracy.

Flexible Automation System

Flexible automation, or soft automation, follows programmed direction sets created by software. Programmers can create new sets of instructions for the automated machinery to follow, which makes the equipment more flexible and capable of creating different products. Flexible automation systems are ideal for complex manufacturing facilities that handle varied production projects, or warehouses and distribution centers where automated tasks have much higher variability than most manufacturing settings. For example, robots can be guided by software to retrieve totes or products from anywhere in the warehouse.

Programmable Automation System

Programmable automation systems have elements of both fixed automation systems and flexible automation systems. The automated systems still follow specific instructions, but the steps can be modified from batch to batch or order to order. The transition between each change takes time, as operators need to upload the new instructions and even set up new tools, so it works best with large runs or batches.

Integrated Automation Systems

Integrated automation systems facilitate automation with little-to-no human intervention. These systems can handle every step of production using complex combinations of sensors, conveyance systems, robotics, software, and more to move workpieces from step to step on their own.

As industrial automation becomes more complex and comprehensive, it has been organized into different subcategories and specific areas of application. Some of the most popular applications for industrial automation include:

  • Factory 4.0. This automation methodology employs digital simulations to identify pain points and make industrial production as streamlined and efficient as possible. It also collects data in real-time to allow better communication between robots and staff members.
  • Assembly and integration. Automating assembly processes with integrated systems can drastically improve production lead times while cutting costs typically lost to waste. For example, systems that handle glue bonding can use the exact amount of product and apply it in optimal conditions for the bond.
  • Robotics. Increasingly complex robotic systems can mimic the movements of hands for assembling and other intricate tasks. In fulfillment settings, robots have become key to building the efficiency that enables retailers to meet tight shipping windows.
  • Packaging, distribution, and warehousing. Industrial automation systems that specialize in packaging, warehousing, and distribution can handle high volumes of movement, sort through goods accurately, and manage large-scale warehousing systems.
  • Conveyor Systems. Automated systems can control conveyor belts to optimally handle the movement of goods during any stage of production. They can accurately distribute batched goods through different processes and manage the movement of goods from task to task for optimal efficiency.
  • Vision Inspection. Automated inspection tools with sensors, cameras, and other detection tools can reduce errors, detect problems, and increase product quality.
  • Testing and QC. Manufactured goods need to undergo tests to ensure the production quality is high. Automated system testing equipment can handle testing functions ranging from pressure tests to destructive tests.
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Reko Automation Creates Industrial Automation Solutions

At Reko Automation, we specialize in solving automation challenges and creating robust automation systems that optimize productivity and prioritize safety. Our team can design, build, test, and install a custom automation system designed to the specifications of your facility and operation. We’re proud to serve the following industries:

Contact us today about building the right custom automation system for your facility.

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