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Automation is the Catalyst for Factory Transition

Phil Baker, Engineering Manager at RNA Automation, explains how speed is dictating the pace and scale of automation in manufacturing.

In a world that’s increasingly unpredictable, extremely competitive on cost and laden with regulations, survival relies heavily on the ability to set a business apart from the rest – ideally ahead of the curve. One of the fundamentals of automation is speed: ROI for a customer is based on being able to produce a required number of products in a certain timeframe.

Operational efficiency is governed by both the speed and accuracy of technology in mass production processes. That said, high-speed automation may not be suitable in some high mix low volume environments because of the complexity of the part. The crux of automating an assembly line that started out as a manual process is that the part being assembled was never designed for automation! It’s quite challenging to emulate by automation some very dextrous applications that human senses can pick up on, like hearing something clicking together.

RNA wash waste catridge assembly System

Bespoke Solutions

Investing in customised automation equipment is always a challenging process. RNA was engaged on a project recently which involved handling a plastic foil bag that was filled with liquid. You can imagine that part of the assembly behaved very organically when handled by automated equipment. Whenever the part was moved it would sway or change shape, so prior to committing to delivery of an end solution, RNA carried out a proof of principle to develop and validate a working concept of the solution ahead of time, de-risking the project for both the machine builder and the end customer.

Through this proof of principle work it became apparent that there was one element of the assembly process that we did not believe in its current guise was automatable. Because the customer had complete confidence in the proposals put forward, we built a semi-automated cell. Part of the assembly remained manually operated while the rest was completed by automation. Then you have to take into account the implications of operators working in parallel with partially automated line and how best to ensure their safety without impacting productivity.

You not only have to consider the safety of employees, you’ve also got to ensure an efficient flow of work. It’s no good the machine being able to handle 75% of products in two seconds if it’s going to take 20 times longer for the operators to do their bit. Neither do you want to create pressure points or overload staff which could lead to bottlenecks as well as potential errors or injury.

Going the Distance

The covid pandemic changed the face of manufacturing but human skills are still required to drive through innovation. On a normal assembly line people are often working almost shoulder to shoulder. Then in a flash the introduction of social distancing and the two-metre rule changed all that. If your production line was 20 metres long and had 10 operators, suddenly it would have to be 60 metres long to be able to accommodate staff under the restrictions, and would require complete re-development. In addition to that, floor space is often at an absolute premium within manufacturing environments, so finding available space can be as much of a challenge as scaling a manual line to accommodate social distancing. To refigure that line is a massive investment which offers nothing by way of return, as remaining a manual line the cost of manufacture remains the same, or in reality increases as the cost of labour rises. The alternatives are either to reduce capacity or to automate.

A seismic shift in skill sets has altered the balance of personnel in the factory. Firms might employ fewer people but they are far higher skilled. Rather than having low-skilled operators on a living wage you’ve got robotic engineers. Instead of a factory being full of people with some automation, you’ve got a factory full of automation with a few people looking after it.

Waste Not, Want Not

From an automation perspective, the environment also springs to mind. For example, if you have an injection moulding system with a worn or defective mould tool it could run for a long time before staff realise that the products being produced are also defective. Through automation the consistency of system output can be gauged, any erroneous product can be segregated and operators can be warned that production is drifting out of limit, offering reassurance that the process remains within its set parameters. And of course less scrap means less waste so it’s by default more environmentally friendly. Plus you can be sure that those hugely expensive energy resources are being used for accurate, efficient production at optimal rates.

The demand for integration between manufacturing and IT systems has also taken off but in my opinion the market hasn’t yet seen the true value of the data being generated. The Industry 4.0 principle can give customers a valuable snapshot of their factory – the downtime of machines, which of them needs servicing and when, the speed products are going through, the pack time, how they’re performing against shift or production targets, etc. Smarter manufacturing can help businesses streamline their operations by not just monitoring the current performance of their factory, but also helping with forward planning with the ability to react more efficiently to changes either in the marketplace or on the shopfloor. Taking that one step further, the ability to model and evaluate changes in their production facility through simulation software, in a digital environment rather than on the shop floor, can also offer significant value. The use of a “digital twin” of a machine or assembly line for this purpose can help to further streamline and optimise production, leading to even greater efficiencies.

Cultivating Customer Loyalty

Speed and accuracy of data capture is so important, not only from an operational point of view. A company that consistently provides a high quality, responsive and speedy service is able to add value beyond a baseline cost. Equally as vital is the ability to build trust with the client base and maintain an enviable rate of customer retention.

Another tool in the box is simulation for evaluating and exploring a project in a virtual environment as opposed to the cost and potential risk of building a physical machine design from scratch, especially in the world of bespoke automation where commonly any new equipment is effectively a prototype. Simulation is a key technology for optimising decision making. It helps businesses evaluate a roadmap for the future very quickly: how will the process work? What is the cost? How long will it take? What is my return? How do different options compare? It can all be done remotely in the cloud – and you get a much quicker answer to all those questions with almost zero risk. It’s the ideal solution for planning smart production systems, adding value and improving productivity.

Ultimately, customers will bring their own vision to the table. A good systems integrator will have expertise on the latest high-level emerging technologies and be able to map out a journey of how they can be deployed in the context of the customers’ factory operation, while remaining sympathetic to the immediate and longer term objectives the customer is striving to achieve. Find an automation partner, like RNA Automation, that can help you take advantage of the opportunities the industry is going to bring, not just tomorrow but well into the future.

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