Automation has become synonymous with using robotics and machines to reduce or replace work traditionally done by employees. But robotics is only one part of how automation works in the manufacturing industry. Robotics like three- or six-axis robotic arms can be used for material handling and pick-and-place tasks, completing them faster and more efficiently than through labor alone. These industrial robotic applications can improve high-volume, repeatable processes, such as orienting a part on a conveyor belt and lifting heavy objects. Controls engineers can program robotics to do the same task the same way every time, or, using more advanced technology, they can program them to be more flexible.
Not every manufacturing company will use robotics in every part of their production line. A manufacturer must define their problem before seeking a solution that solves that problem. Robotics may not be the right solution for a low-volume, delicate production process. For this reason, manufacturers should work with an experienced robotics integrator to ensure the solution they choose will improve their efficiency, uptime, and quality.
Robotics isn't the only automation solution available. Digital solutions, that entail custom software, the Internet of Things, and other advanced technology, help your machines communicate with each other and share better data with your operators, engineers, quality control team and management. Software and networking solutions can improve assembly processing, quality inspection, and inventory management. Further, digital solutions allow management to extract analytics to measure success and improve production planning.
There are typically two types of applications for which manufacturers use robots: repetitive and adaptive or flexible applications. Some manufacturers use robotics to automate repetitive, menial tasks such as material handling and assembly. Industrial robots can typically complete these tasks faster and improve repeatability and quality. Common use cases of repetitive or fixed automation include:
The second common use case is adaptive or flexible automation. As robotics and automation become more advanced, automated robots' assigned tasks can be more flexible and adaptive. Instead of programming a robot to make the same motion over and over, some robots paired with other technologies can adapt to different parts and products with limited shutdown and reprogramming time. Manufacturers may pair flexible automation with remote monitoring and remote programming options so they can view and make changes off-site.
In today’s manufacturing collaborative robots now allow operators to safely work within close proximity. Collaborative robots have enabled facilities to optimize workforces by using these robots to handle more of the mundane tasks previously done by operators.
Automation and robotics solutions in manufacturing are expanding and will continue to change the manufacturing plant. Manufacturers have realized that connecting their machines with networking and using that data to make decisions improves their business. And that is just the start of Industry 4.0.