For many manufacturers, the prospect of a fully automated, human-free factory feels light years away. When, they ask, is the 4th Industrial revolution coming to us and what can we expect? In this blog, we look at the realities of (fully-/semi-)automated manufacturing, what robots can and can’t do, and why the human touch is still (mostly) irreplaceable.
Some goods aren’t well suited to a fully automated line, some processes impossible without human intervention or co-operation. Yet mass production still aims to deliver optimum efficiency and cost-effectiveness, with maximum profit and return on investment. Little wonder then that the “lights out” approach to manufacturing sounds so attractive. So what happened after the lights went out in Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant in China, should other manufacturers follow (and how)?
Digitalization isn’t binary
Certain situations clearly favour a (human) hands-off approach, such as Foxconn’s complex production of electronic components, and in areas where contamination risks are high, as well as in many types of high-volume, low-mix plants. But what about those manufacturers not running this way, instead moving a low-volume, high-mix to maximize customer choice? Is their route to automatization blocked by their need to diversify? Thankfully, no.
Digitalization isn’t binary—at least not in the sense that it’s all or nothing—every manufacturer can make at least some use of automation technology. What percentage though, depends on a range of factors, including how much of the production process requires complex decision-making and improvisation: areas uniquely suited to humans.
Finding the right roles
Today there is a growing shift to production lines where manufacturing staff are put to work in roles where their skills are most valuable: in supervisory areas, rather than the traditional operational duties. This, and working with collaborative robots (cobots), where human speed and dexterity are aligned with the tireless efficiency of the automated companion worker.
But how do manufacturers establish which parts of their lines can be automated? How can they see where cost savings can be made and what the end results will be, before making investment in what might feel like a disruptive change? This is the realm of the system integrator, the technology vendor, the partners to industry who can show traditional manufacturers how their operations can benefit from a (modest) move into digitalization.
Proof of concept
From system analysis to full on proof of concept, covering separate line applications to entire facilities, trusted integrators are the first point of contact for manufacturers seeking improvement. OMRON also offers its services in this process, and its proof-of-concept laboratory and high-tech facilities where prototype systems can be built to demonstrate exactly how manufacturers can benefit from automation. So, what can manufacturers expect?
A digital look ahead
Machine vision is a growing field of automation, with advances in 3D vision systems increasing the flexibility of complex pick & place operations. Until relatively recently, cameras were only able to process products in fixed positions on the line. Today high-resolution cameras coupled with machine-learning algorithms can now readily identify objects randomly positioned in transport bins. This greatly increases the viability of camera systems for varying products, running at increased speeds, on automated lines.
There is one area where the modern factory is most aided by automation and that’s in robot technology. From intra-logistics—the movement of materials and sub-assemblies through the production line—to fixed-line robots, to collaborative units, it is here where the real savings can be made. Time, energy, safety and cost, all can potentially be reduced with the introduction of the right robots in the right place.
Advances in robot technology
Whether it’s a mobile robot to replace a forklift, or a cobot to work alongside a human operator, the efficiency and reliability of repeatability here is being seen in an increasing range of industries. Cobots for instance are simple to program, particularly when compared to more traditional industrial robots, and are easy to re-deploy for different tasks, which is a particular advantage in high product-mix scenarios. Where high-speed repeatability is the goal, industrial robots – such as delta robots – are ideal. Here, recent progress in tooling has advanced the automated packing of fruit, with new gripper designs allowing automated soft fruit packing with industrial robots for the first time.
Robotics is a crucible of innovation, with engineers constantly on the lookout for new and better ways to handle traditionally challenging tasks. For instance, OMRON’s Mobile Manipulator System MoMa is a hybrid concept that combines a mobile robot, a collaborative robot and a vision system. This innovation combines mobility, dexterity and accuracy, enabling the automation of ever more complex tasks. How far it takes us to a world of lights-out factories remains to be seen, and as manufacturers continue to partner with technology vendors and systems integrators, the vision of the future remains in the right (human) hands.
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