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The Ultimate Guide To Manufacturing Automation

There’s no question about it: The world around us is evolving. New and improved changes to manufacturing have allowed businesses in all industries to scale exponentially and reach heights undreamed of beforehand. Faster production, new equipment, reduced costs, and an emphasis on waste reduction in manufacturing has led to a boom in many industries.

New technologies have emerged to help facilitate the growth in manufacturing across the globe. Manufacturing automation gives businesses more control over their entire operation by using automated systems to track and categorize data that can be used to improve the manufacturing process. In this article we’ll learn more about manufacturing automation, the benefits it brings to your business, and what the future of manufacturing automation looks like.

What Is Manufacturing Automation?

Simply put, manufacturing automation is the use of technology to automate production processes. This can include equipment software programs, production floor robots, or overall systems that are used to create smoother, more data-driven strategies for the production line. The overarching goal of manufacturing automation is to drive efficiency, reduce costs, and increase production capacity.

Manufacturing automation has been used for years, but it has recently become more and more important to have established in your organization. Automation relies on machines and robots to reduce the amount of manual work that needs to be done by human employees. It allows human workers to focus on the things that need their attention and lets equipment handle the rest of the work, making things easier for your teams.

One great example of manufacturing automation is machine monitoring. With machine monitoring, you can learn about the causes behind breaks, keep track of maintenance, and avoid costly shutdowns altogether. This ensures that your production lines run smoothly and you reach your highest production output each day.

In fact, an Oxford report states that manufacturing automation could potentially increase $4.9 trillion each year by 2030. Another report by the World Economic Forum finds that by the end of this year, 42% of time spent on manufacturing tasks in an average business will be completed using automation or robots.

Managers and leadership are one of the biggest driving forces behind increased automation in the workplace. One study shows the main reason that 57% of employers want to implement automation is to improve productivity, which can create more opportunities for business growth.

Types of Automation in Manufacturing

With manufacturing automation being such a broad term, there are different types of automation that deal with different aspects of manufacturing. Each has its own benefits and negatives, so make sure that you are working with the right type of manufacturing automation needed for your business.

Fixed Automation

Fixed automation is also sometimes called hard automation. It’s a system of automation that is set up to produce specific products on individual machines. The speed and sequence of the process are then put in place by the capabilities of the equipment or the product line. This makes it a great type of automation for creating high volumes of product that requires different sets of equipment to produce.

While fixed automation is great for producing the same product, it can be difficult to switch production styles once a machine is set. This makes changeover difficult to achieve. It also has a high barrier of entry to start, and isn’t flexible or adaptive like some other automation styles are.

Some common examples of fixed automation might include chemical manufacturing processes or basic assembly lines to create specific products. Automotive industries are an example of a leader in fixed automation processes, and provide the best examples of fixed automation in action. For example, a machine that exists only to create a single gear is fixed automation at its best.

Programmable Automation

Programmable automation is great for low-volume production lines or products that have short life cycles. Programmable automation is characterized by batch production, and requires a specific program or production system to run it, as suggested by the name.

Unlike fixed and hard automation, programmable automation has the capacity to change. Just create another program and install it onto the machines, and you can create a different product than you were before. However, there is downtime associated with new product configurations and product sequences. Too much downtime can lead to machines being underutilized and can lead to expensive shutdowns on the production floor.

You’ll see programmable automation in small-batch product production, as well as in industrial robots and numerically controlled machine tools. One example of programmable automation in action is with programmable logic controllers. These supercomputers are able to receive data inputs and send out specific operating instructions. If you take your gear machine from fixed automation and give it changeover time to create a new type of gear, that’s another example of programmable automation.

Flexible Automation

Flexible automation is closer to programmable automation than it is to fixed automation, but adds another layer of design. Flexible automations are able to quickly respond to new production changes like quantities or specifications without the extensive downtime associated with programmable automation. This makes it a great solution for real-time or on-demand production.

While flexible automation may limit the types of equipment that it can run on, it is often connected to a bigger network in order to receive new production orders. Because it is connected in part to a bigger network, flexible automation can often be accessed remotely using machine monitoring or controls. This means that programs can be adjusted without being near the actual machine. Hypothetically, new programs can be designed, uploaded, and run from anywhere in the world.

Flexible automations are most commonly seen on modern assembly lines and material handling systems. An example of flexible automation in action might be new and advanced robotics. Robotic systems can be operated through an internet connection and can be designed to accept new instructions and programs rather than being fixed a certain way. If our gear machine had the ability to produce many different types of gears without needing changeover time, that would be flexible automation.

Manufacturing Automation Benefits

There are many benefits of automation, all of which can be used to create a more holistic, effective manufacturing process in your production facilities. Automation creates precision, consistency, and better operations within your business. And, as mentioned earlier, manufacturing automation is no longer optional for businesses that want to succeed.

Reliance on automation technology is becoming more and more commonplace in manufacturing plants. It allows businesses to better track their productivity, increase their production rates, and reduce errors. This in turn gives businesses the ability to meet customer demands more effectively and grow over time. Without automation tools, businesses will find that they can’t keep up with demand and will lose their customers to competitors.

By implementing automation, you create clear paths for growth and determine where you are currently falling behind. You can also make a path for better automation strategies in the future by implementing flexible and adaptable technologies into your workplace. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the major benefits of manufacturing automation.

  • Lower operating costs: Manufacturing automation will lead to lower operating costs within your organization over time. While there is an initial up-front investment that needs to take place, eventually the investment will pay for itself. Machines that have been enhanced with automation are able to perform the work of many different people and create better operating practices.
  • Increased workplace safety: Throughout the history of manufacturing it’s been assumed that some people have to place themselves in hazardous or dangerous conditions in order to achieve a goal. With the increased involvement of manufacturing automation, there are fewer staff members who have to face such challenges. Automation and robotics can take the place of human involvement in hazardous processes or materials.
  • Increased productivity: Machines are capable of working 24/7. They don’t have shift ends, meal breaks, or vacation days. Production that uses machine automation can run longer and produce more than organizations that rely solely on manual practices by human employees.
  • Superior product quality: Machines can produce products without the risk of human error making the product quality drop. They are capable of performing with greater accuracy and without mistakes that result from tiredness or illness. They also are required to meet certain standards with regards to conformity and uniformity, meaning that you’ll experience a lower fraction defect rate.
  • Improved customer satisfaction: Customers love having a supplier or source that they can rely on. When you use machine automation to improve your manufacturing processes, you can ensure that your production goals are met and your customers get their orders on time and as requested. This leads to higher levels of customer satisfaction and improves your brand reputation.
  • Decreased waste: Lean manufacturing principles applied to manufacturing automation creates less waste in the workplace. Manufacturing automation can reduce waste of time and materials while ensuring that the highest level of production is met. This makes it easy for your organization to achieve environmental goals while providing excellent products.
  • Reduce changeovers: While programmable automation still needs to plan time for changeovers into the production schedule, flexible automation programs and robotics make it easier for companies to reduce the amount of time spent on changeovers in their organizations. This allows for more time spent on production rather than on planning.
  • Collect real-time data: Manufacturing automation uses bigger systems and networks to collect information on how machines are running, your supply chain, and your current production outputs. By keeping track of all this data in real-time, you are able to create better pictures of your performance, lead times, estimates, and timelines.

Machine Monitoring: The First Step in Your Automation Journey

With so many different types of manufacturing automation available, many companies and business owners aren’t sure where to begin. The answer, however, is fairly simple. Machine monitoring is often the first step in any automation journey.

Machine monitoring refers to the process of monitoring, extracting, storing, organizing, and utilizing the machine data from equipment on the factory floor. It allows manufacturers to collect information about manufacturing automation as it’s happening on the production floor. It allows you to understand how each machine you have is operating, why it’s shutting down, who is operating it, which parts are working and which need replacing, and the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) of your machinery.

There are machine monitoring tools that are a simple plug-in to your current machines, and use automation software to pull relevant data and organize it into easily digestible reports and metrics. These metrics can then be used to inform decision-making and help you understand the value you are getting out of your equipment.

In addition, machine monitoring allows you to track downtime, report on utilization, and set variable production times and schedules. Machine monitoring works as a great first step to creating a manufacturing automation strategy that works. Before you invest in new machines and programs, you can look to see what your current benchmarks are.

Machine monitoring also lets you see the current health of your machines, so you know whether they are producing value for your organization or costing you money. This gives you the opportunity to create a plan for which machines need replacing and which need more time or resources invested in them.

Most machine monitoring plug-ins like Amper’s solutions will use real-time data to help you understand exactly when issues arise in your machines. Amper’s machine monitoring tools also provide you and your team with accurate and on-demand reporting that takes each data point into consideration. Over time, you can use that real-time data to predict when maintenance should be performed.

You also collect valuable data that can be used to create better plans for implementing automation in your production line. You can determine which types of automation are best for your organization and see what types of metrics can guide the goals you set for improving productivity in your workplace. To learn more, check out Amper’s machine monitoring solutions and discover how they can improve your machine data collection and reporting.

Manufacturing Automation Tools and Methodologies

While we’ve already discussed the different types of manufacturing automation (fixed, programmable, and flexible) and talked about the value of machine monitoring as an introduction to automation, there are still many other tools and methodologies for achieving manufacturing automation at scale. Let’s look at a few examples of those tools and methodologies that you can use in your business.

  • Numerical control: Numerical control refers to computer control of machine tools which allows operations to be handled directly by numerical data. These numbers are often coded back to storage and data inputs, customized for each organization.
  • Computer numerical control (CNC): Different products that use computer numerical control or CNC use a method to automate control through the use of embedded software, often in the form of a microchip. This allows for the control of a device to be managed through direct input from data of the computer program.
  • Automated tools: Automated tools refer to a number of different programs that can be used to help increase the amount of manufacturing automation taking place in your organization. They integrate software and machinery so that different manufacturing processes can run through computer programming autonomously.
  • Computer-aided design (CAD): Computer-aided design (CAD) machines use different programming tools to create, modify, analyze, and optimize designs that are then plugged into a machine with automation software. Often used in engineering and manufacturing, CAD can produce accurate designs and drawings that can then be linked to design software.
  • Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM): Computer-aided manufacturing, otherwise known as CAM, is a process that uses software and computerized machinery to improve a manufacturing process. Like many of the other terms used in manufacturing automation, there is some overlap with other tools, but the use of software to create better manufacturing processes is a unique feature of CAM.
  • Programmable logic controllers (PLCs): A programmable logic controller is a type of small computer that can be used to receive data through inputs and then send that data through outputs to spread operating instructions among machines. By using internal logic, PLCs automate specific instructions for industrial and manufacturing automation.
  • Islands of automation: Islands of automation are automation subsystems that are not integrated with other systems that they interact with. This means that rather than being affected by other systems, islands of automations don’t integrate and remain as separate systems within your manufacturing automation network. This reduces the risk of hacking or exposure to corruption.
  • Inline assembly systems: Inline assembly systems use low-level code to write assembly language that can then be embedded in a specific program. It helps computer programming work more efficiently and create better code languages for instructions.

Looking Forward: The Future of Manufacturing Automation

Today, manufacturing automation is becoming more and more common in businesses across all industries. Those who are adapting to new technologies and automations are seeing growth and success, while those without it are struggling to keep up with demand and meet production goals. In the future, manufacturing automation is going to continue to grow and develop. Companies that want to see long-term success should start to invest and expand with automation companies and technology now, before it is too late.

More and more factories are becoming automated, with some suspecting that the possibility of 100% automated factories is a possibility in the near future. But don’t worry — there’s still a need for a human workforce. Machines need to be monitored, fixed, and fine-tuned through human interaction and intervention. As machines become more complex, human interaction is key to ensuring that they stay on track for your manufacturing goals.

There’s also the potential for manufacturing automation and artificial intelligence to combine. Artificial intelligence and machine learning can help alert human overseers to machine failures or maintenance needs, or even apply corrections itself. This helps to mitigate recalls and costly repairs by planning for production processes that can control systems and create opportunities for continuous improvement. And, by reducing the number of recalls, artificial intelligence can help brands improve their reputations.

With an increase in manufacturing automation in the future, business owners will also be able to rethink common expenses that were once considered non-negotiable aspects of modern business. If factories are mostly run by machines, then overhead costs like heating, lights, plumbing, and even coffee and snacks are massively reduced. Cutting those costs not only helps your bottom line, but also helps to create a better environment with fewer power grid strains and heat waste.

Automation in manufacturing is sure to continue evolving over time. There will be a plethora of new integrations, technologies, and best practices to follow as automation solutions continue to develop and be implemented over time. Advanced robotics, machine vision, the Internet of Things (IOT) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will affect how manufacturing automation develops and what types of tools and technologies become available to your business.

The best way to plan for the future of automation technology is to start investing in it today. This ensures that you aren’t left too far behind, and have a background in automation tools that can minimize complexity in your organization, help you improve production capacities, reduce waste, and meet your manufacturing goals.


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