The topic of automation often brings to mind visions of factories with robots on assembly lines putting together cars or other products. While this is certainly one incarnation of automation systems, there are many other examples of automated systems in our modern society; self-driving cars, airline kiosks, smart robot warehouse systems – think Amazon, and many others.
While many people fear that automation will do away with jobs, it can also free up time for employees to focus on areas where humans excel, such as creativity, relationships, inventiveness and problem-solving. For instance, automating physical work can free up time to devote to other aspects of the product that aren’t easily automated. Other advantages exist in developing automated test beds or other tools such as expediting production, lowering fatigue or improving safety factors.
Automation is any technology that performs or processes a procedure without human assistance. Automation systems result in a better product by addressing quality – making sure that the product is built correctly; precision – ensuring exactness of operations; and/ or throughput – production that is done faster than is possible by humans. Working to design, engineer and build semi-automated and fully-automated systems provides our clients with production efficiencies and cost reductions.
Here, at SIGMADESIGN, we are focused on highly customized automation systems. We provide turn-key integrations by taking a client’s need from initial concept through a fully automated system. We develop automation systems in partnership with clients as we work together through the process. Ultimately, the design partnership results in automated multi-station systems, or fully automated systems that provide reliability, precision and throughput.
PARAMETERS FOR DECIDING TO AUTOMATE
Clients can benefit from automation systems when there is a need for multi-step processes that manipulate a unique product. Establishing goals for a new automated system will enhance the design, build and final integration of the system. It will also assist in deciding whether the investment in the system makes sense for your business. Some priorities could include:
- Reduce production time
- Improve human safety and operation
- Eliminate errors
- Special handling
- Custom product inspection
- Testing for regulatory compliance
- Specialized systems for clean rooms or other custom needs
Specific production needs will determine the type of automation system needed. Investing in an automation system is a large up-front investment, but producing a reliable product more efficiently will lead to cost reductions – a tangible and measureable return-on-investment (ROI)). However, automation will not fix flaws within a product itself. Automation will have the greatest ROI when it is enhancing the production of an already great product- making it better along with streamlining the process for making it. Additionally at this point, a good design partner can assist with scaling up production, and assessing or improving ‘Design for Automation’ and / or ’Design for Assembly’ (DFA).
Before investing in an automation system of any sort, a company should have a product(s) proven viable with an existing manufacturing process. Product sales can often partially support the cost of automating the production or advancing the process. If a company is developing new products, this efficiency in current production can often partially support the cost of automating production or the cost of new product development.
APPROACH TO DESIGNING AND BUILDING CUSTOM, HIGH-PRECISION AUTOMATION SYSTEMS
The automated system project usually follows several phases:
- Phase 1: Investigation
- Phase 2: Design and Build
- Phase 3: Integration /Installation
Phase 1: Investigation
The investigation phase includes understanding all aspects the automated system must accomplish. During this phase, the existing processes and procedures are documented and examined, as well as any lessons learned from the existing assembly line or production process. Understanding the system’s high-level functional requirements will result in a system that performs precisely as required. A best approach or solution is then proposed to ensure that the design of the new automated system will meet all specifications, expectations and improvements.
High-level functions addressed by an automation system could include:
- Improving the design for DFA (both assembly and automation)
- Transporting work pieces from one process to another
- Loading and securing product units in place
- Monitoring temperature requirements
- Monitoring cycle times
- Engaging products with electrical contacts
- Performing pick and placement operations
- Performing precise unit orientation
- Applying adhesives
- Performing unit checks and recordings of output
Phase 2: Design and Build
During the Design and Build phase, the design team incorporates the results from the Phase 1 Investigation. To ensure it will function as required, the design team narrows in on a detailed design of the automation system utilizing a variety of professional skills including inventiveness, proficiency in engineering analysis and engineering science, interdisciplinary knowledge and abilities, and mathematics. Additionally, an understanding of manufacturing processes, good decision making and communication come into play during the creation of a successful design. Acceptance criteria are developed for system units and are jointly agreed upon by the design and client teams.
Also during this phase, sub-systems and test beds are frequently built to demonstrate capabilities and test features of the overall design. Once sub-systems are completed, the full system is built and verified for performance. Certification happens based upon agreed specifications outlined in Phase 1.
Phase 3: Installation
Once the automation system is built and certified, it is transported to the client’s location. Design professionals make sure that installation is properly implemented and that the automation system performs as desired. Additionally, system integration can include training designated users on system functions and maintenance procedures.
BENEFITS OF INVESTING IN CUSTOM AUTOMATION SYSTEMS
Automation systems can advance technology, new products and increase production quality, precision and throughput. The goal for automation systems is to provide better production quality, precision and throughput with a solid return on investment. In addition, automating a process may free up time for individuals to spend more time creating new products or improving aspects of existing products. More time for creativity, understanding variability, and improving processes can help advance a client’s products and keep them at the front of their market.
If you enjoyed reading about this topic, you might also enjoy the WSJ article, “Workers fear not the robot apocalypse.” It notes, that “Companies don’t use automation simply to produce the same thing more cheaply. Instead, they find ways to offer entirely new, improved products. As customers flock to these new offerings, companies have to hire more people.” https://www.wsj.com/articles/workers-fear-not-the-robot-apocalypse-1504631505