What Is Industrial Automation?
Industrial automation uses computerized control systems and robots—i.e., automation machinery—to replace human decision-making and involvement in manufacturing processes. For example, automated machining tools and mobile components perform processing and finishing operations on materials, and automated conveyor systems move the parts and components through the various manufacturing stages.
Benefits of Industrial Automation
Due to the benefits afforded by the integration of industrial automation technology—including increased production speeds, better quality control, and improved safety—an increasing amount of manufacturing facilities across virtually every industry are opting to adopt it over traditional manual or mechanized methods. Some of the most important benefits include:
Improvements in Manufacturing Quality and Flexibility
One of the markers of superior manufacturing power is better quality—i.e., a reduction in the overall production error rate. Automated manufacturing and assembly equipment, such as CNC machines, have integrated programs designed to handle repetitive tasks with increasingly small error rates. Additionally, these machines can be programmed to instantly execute new operations and additional steps in an assembly process.
Compared to human-operated facilities, automated manufacturing facilities offer capabilities for faster and continuous operation without the risk of errors due to operator fatigue. While industrial automation may still require some manpower for inspections and oversight, automated processes have a much higher productivity rate per person on the manufacturing floor than manual or mechanical processes.
Despite having a high initial cost, industrial automation can help facilities reduce overall costs by:
- Integrating analytics tools into the process to minimize data collection and management costs.
- Reducing overall labor costs, such as wages, benefits, and other healthcare costs.
- Integrating sensors and automated alerts which reduce the risk of equipment failure or service outages.
Automated processes are safer because they require less operator involvement. Rather than taking on the role of operator, human supervisors can monitor tasks and production from safer distances, while the machines can handle tasks with potentially hazardous materials or equipment such as:
- Sharp metals and equipment
- Heavy materials and equipment
- Materials that require high or low temperature extremes
- Electrical equipment
Types of Industrial Automation
Manufacturing facilities can use a combination of different levels or degrees of automation to build out their manufacturing processes. Those types of industrial automation include:
Fixed Automation (Also Known As Hard Automation)
Many manufacturing facilities perform routine, repetitive tasks that do not change from product to product. Processes that require these constant or large-scale runs use specialized machines with fixed automation, also referred to as hard automation, processes. While fixed automation processes are inflexible and may have high initial costs, they manufacture products with a high degree of speed, accuracy, and safety.
Flexible Automation (Also Known As Soft Automation)
Flexible automation, also referred to as soft automation, allows for more flexible production. Instead of using hardcoded machinery that handles a single set of tasks without any deviation, like with hard automation, flexible automation uses specified commands in a computer program. Changing the code can alter not only the sequence of steps but the actual processes performed as well. Individual CAD templates for parts and products, for example, can be translated into specific instructions for CNC machines. Additionally, guided vehicles and other dynamic manufacturing tools use flexible automation processes to handle complex manufacturing tasks.
In programmable automation, the manufacturing tasks are handled by a computer program that delivers specific instructions to the machines. These processes can vary widely from batch to batch because engineers can modify the set of instructions to suit the specifications of the particular manufacturing application.
Programmable automation is ideal for manufacturing facilities that produce smaller batches and produce similar types of products that utilize many of the same steps and tools. While entirely new configurations and sequences are possible, they typically require longer setups and processing times. Unlike flexible automation, programmable automation allows hard automation setups to be reconfigured from the same base systems and tools for each production run. This type of automation is common in paper mills or steel rolling mills.
Integrated automation is entirely handled by computers and control processes with minimal human involvement. Computers can design the necessary parts, test the designs, and fabricate the parts. This type of industrial automation is the closest to the “lights-out” automation that was first imagined in the 1980s.
Types of Manufacturing Processes Compatible With Automation
Manufacturing processes establish the operations necessary to produce an end part or product, while automation processes dictate how the operations will be executed. For example, assembling pre-formed parts (the manufacturing process) can be achieved through hard automation or programmable automation (the automation process).
Several types of manufacturing processes are compatible with the four types of automation listed above. Some of the most common compatible manufacturing types include:
Repetitive manufacturing is used to manufacture the same parts or products over a long period of time, typically in large batches. This type of manufacturing uses an assembly line or production line format to manufacture goods and experiences few changes in the manufacturing setup, materials, or other considerations over time. While operation speeds can be modified to meet fluctuating demand, the general steps and sequence of steps remain constant. Repetitive manufacturing facilities can run 24/7 with relatively little human supervision to maintain high rates of production.
Repetitive manufacturing is commonly used in the following industries:
- Computers and electronics
- Machinery manufacturing
This type of manufacturing can be achieved with hard automation and programmable automation processes.
Discrete manufacturing allows for variations throughout the manufacturing process. This type uses assembly or production lines that fan out to allow for a limited number of different operations at various stages of production. However, the options are limited, and outside of a few set variables, dynamic changes are not allowed. Discrete manufacturing production lines also tend to create products that are similar to each other, and, like repetitive manufacturing lines, generally process solid or pre-formed components.
Discrete manufacturing is commonly used in the following industries:
- Consumer products
- Food packaging
This type of manufacturing can be combined with flexible automation processes.
Job Shop Manufacturing
Unlike the linear production lines used in repetitive and discrete manufacturing, this type of manufacturing occurs within set production areas. The products remain in a workstation that is outfitted with the necessary tools and human supervisors. Job shop manufacturing produces more complex products and is typically used for smaller production runs. It is also more labor-intensive than other styles of manufacturing.
Job shop manufacturing is commonly used in the following industries:
- Custom machinery
- High skilled labor
- Hand-crafted consumer goods
This type of manufacturing can be achieved with flexible automation processes. However, many of the operations may require more manual labor and involve having human operators control smaller automated tasks.
Batch Process Manufacturing
Process manufacturing, also referred to as batch manufacturing, handles smaller production runs and uses raw materials that cannot be made to strict standards. This manufacturing method is common among industries with lower or seasonal levels of demand that only need occasional “batches”.
Batch process manufacturing is commonly used in the following industries:
- Food and beverages
This type of manufacturing can be achieved with integrated and flexible automation.
Continuous Process Manufacturing
Continuous process manufacturing offers consistent processing—either by heat, mechanical, or chemical processes—of raw fluid materials, such as gases, liquids, powders, slurries, and granules. While the manufacturing process from beginning to end does not change, different orders or runs may enter into or leave the process at different stages.
Continuous process manufacturing is commonly used in the following industries:
- Food and beverages
- Oil and gas
This type of manufacturing can be achieved with integrated and flexible automation. Like repetitive manufacturing, this process is continuous and relatively unchanging.
Automation Machinery by Big Sky Engineering
Industrial automation makes manufacturing more efficient, safe, and profitable through faster production speeds, less operator involvement, and lower overall costs. Different degrees of automation allow for a spectrum of manufacturing conditions ranging from fully automated and repetitive processes during large-scale production runs to dynamic automation processes that follow coded instructions during small-scale runs.
Choosing the right type of automation for your manufacturing facility can be challenging, but Big Sky Engineering is here to help. Our consulting services can help you finalize and design custom automation processes for your facility, and then we can help build your custom automation and manufacturing equipment setup. Our services include:
Custom Manufacturing System and Machine Design
Our engineers can design and build custom machines for your company that meet your individual manufacturing demands. These systems can handle a wide range of automated manufacturing tasks such as fabrication, assembly, packaging, and material handling. We can also design and build custom PLC-controlled automation systems.
Robotic Design and Integration Services
After inspecting your facility, we can make recommendations to integrate robotic systems. As an authorized robotics integrator, our cohesively designed robotic solutions can make your facility safer and more flexible. Depending on your manufacturing needs, our engineers can help you automate a single process or all of your in-house processes.
Custom Automation and Control Systems
Big Sky Engineering’s consultants can help you plan and design the right custom automation system to make your facility safer and more efficient. As a turnkey solutions provider, we can provide design, development, assembly, setup, and installation services. Our design services include safety features, quality control assemblies, and PLC controls platforms.
Regardless of the unique demands of your manufacturing facility, Big Sky Engineering can help you with your company’s next custom automation solution. Contact us or request a quote today with the details of your project to receive expert recommendations.