What is Factory Automation?
To understand factory automation, we need to know what a factory is. Many of us would think of smokestacks and mass production when we hear the term “factory.” But the word “factory” can refer to different things:
A building that has been fitted out and equipped for carrying on a particular manufacturing process, particularly the production of textiles, steel, or automobiles. A building that has been fitted out for a particular use: “a factory for making shoes”.
Factory automation is the installation and integration of specialized machines and systems within a factory environment to make it capable of running automated tasks. These automated tasks are typically pre-programmed to operate at different stages throughout the assembly process to improve quality control and reduce lead times. Examples include work cells (or work teams), machines such as robots, measuring instruments like CMM’s (coordinate-measuring machines) and vision inspection equipment.
The idea behind having dedicated lines with these types of processes is because they will guarantee consistent output without any human interaction once set up correctly; each task is performed in a fixed sequence removing the need for inspection, which with humans would be subject to fatigue and inconsistency.
How does it work?
Factory automation has many moving parts, so to speak. Let’s consider a basic production line. There are two main types of automated factory lines: manually-assisted and fully automatic.
Manually-assisted lines in factories have robots or flexible automation which require an operator to move the product through the assembly process – these are typically seen in smaller operations where high levels of flexibility are required in order to react to changes in demand for product frequently. Alternatively, you will see pick and place equipment used for this task such as carousels fitted with conveyors. The carousel will spin around at speed (much like a CD player) placing different components onto the conveyor belt for hand assembly workers; who can then assemble them without having to move their workbenches.
Fully automated lines do not require any operator input and the assembly process is triggered by a central control system. The central control system will move faulty product if necessary (which comes down to how it is programmed) and record information such as who assembled which item, when it was built and whether there were any problems with its assembly; this data can be used for quality audits or warranty claims in some cases.
Why would you want to use it?
The main aim of factory automation is to improve productivity, quality and ROI. Factories which are set up to use automated lines will often be highly efficient compared to their manual counterparts where downtime can be estimated in hours rather than minutes. Also, consider the costs associated with human error or injury; it may sound like a dramatic example but if assembly workers injure themselves (or even worse – one another) due to lack of control over operations – who is responsible? Safety may also become an issue as well; mix large amounts of manually operated machinery with alcohol consumption at the end of the working day and you could easily find yourself with trouble on your hands. Factory automation reduces this risk dramatically because line operators do not need any qualifications, they simply follow an automated sequence that they have no control over. Finally, consider the job satisfaction of operators on a manual assembly line – factory automation takes most of the monotonous and dirty tasks away from your usual assembly worker, making their role much more manageable and therefore increasing morale in the workplace.
What are the benefits of factory automation?
The main benefit of factory automation is it improves the quality, consistency and speed of production.
This increased quality comes from the fact that machines are more accurate than humans in general, so there is less chance for error between machine operators who can get tired or bored with repetitive tasks which then affects their output. Machines also have faster reaction times to changing product design specifications where human intervention would be costly both in terms of time and money – this is especially true when operating automated robotic arms on fully-automatic lines where millisecond reaction times are required.
Finally, let’s think about speed – if you look at how long it takes you to assemble a toothbrush for example, compared to an automated assembly line; you will note that an experienced assembly worker can make one in about 20 seconds, whereas it takes a robotic arm around 2.5 seconds on average to complete the same task – this is because of the way they are programmed to perform tasks.
The benefits of factory automation don’t end there either. There are also fewer safety risks with automated assembly lines compared to manually-assisted lines which require operators who can be exposed to heat, noise and toxic chemicals when working with machines that pressurize or process them for example. Next, machine health monitoring can reduce downtime by automatically diagnosing problems before they happen therefore minimizing downtime caused by faulty equipment. These are just some of the reasons why companies have adopted factory automation in their production processes.
Drawbacks of using Factory Automation
There are a few drawbacks to using factory automation – the first being the initial investment. This is more apparent with larger factories that have bigger production lines, for example, automotive plants may spend millions on installing fully automated systems before they see any return. To mitigate this risk, ensure that your chosen technology is capable of being easily integrated into existing machinery or controlled by an operator if something goes wrong where it cannot operate independently. The second potential drawback relates to flexibility; manual assembly lines can be adjusted fairly easily but it takes time and money to adjust automated lines although computers can be reprogrammed relatively quickly if enough information exists about operations. Finally, consider the threshold required to implement new technologies – some assembly techniques require little or knowledge of what is involved whereas automated lines rely on detailed knowledge of computer networks which can be difficult for managers to either comprehend or retain in the long term.
How do I get started with implementing my own Factory Automation System?
Implementing your own factory automation system will always require some capital investment, however, it is possible to start small with an aim to grow your operations over time. One way to get started is by contracting out the majority of assembly tasks within your factory; this can be achieved relatively easily by offering one-off services but you may want to consider closing this off after a set number of years if you feel like you are able to automate certain areas yourself (e.g. product design). If possible, look for manufacturers which provide automated solutions already – they will often supply complete lines or offer sales support for smaller projects which might appeal if costs are outwith your current budget or simply do not justify full-scale production just yet. Alternatively, investigate the potential of robotics to improve your current operations.
Where can I learn more about this topic?
If you want to learn more about this topic, we recommend the SensorHaus website. SensorHaus is a company that sells automation systems and industrial products. A wide range of sensors in different types, models and capacities according to their applications are offered by SensorHaus. Their website is dedicated to manufacturing solutions and they post articles that can help you with all matters related to factory automation. They also provide a helpful glossary of terms on their homepage for those who are new to automated processes or simply do not understand some key terminology. You can access their site for all the latest updates and news from the world of factory automation. Click here for more information.