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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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, 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 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 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:
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.
Reko Automation has fully integrated capabilities including concept and process development, design, and complete manufacturing and installation services. In addition to new machine development, we also complete full machine repairs.
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