CitationDownload as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 1999, MCB UP Limited
Applications of automated assembly
Applications of automated assembly
Ken G. Swift and Klaus Selke
The authorsKen G. Swift and Klaus Selke are at the School of Engineering, University of Hull, Cottingham Road, Hull, UK.
Keywords Assembly, Automation, Manufacturing industry
When we look at the state of our manufacturing businesses we see little evidence of substantial progress in the application of assembly systems. Most assembly work is still being carried out using methods that have changed little over recent decades, while there have been enormous advances in the application of new approaches in the manufacture of engineering components.
Today it is accepted, no: expected, that some parts of the manufacturing process do run in a highly-automated environment, where, only a few years ago, the demands on output, reliability and flexibility would have been considered impossible to automate. The idea of a lights-out factory has become reality in the initial stages of manufacturing where design offices and machining centres operate automatically, and occasionally an operator adjusts and reloads components. Go into the assembly area of the same products, however, and you will find ten, sometimes more than 30, times more people carrying out the assembly of the same components into a product.
The problem is often compounded by design. Studies using DFA evaluation methods on numerous designs of today show that typically products are being created with a number of components that can be reduced by 30 per cent to 70 per cent and with, on average, twice the required level of assembly complexity, in terms of assembly structures, insertion and fastening and handling processes. The requirement is for generative and proactive DFA methods that can be used during the early stages of product introduction and before the design is finalised, and in order to make progress in assembly automation, as the technology applicable to industry stands at the moment, design must be included.
Clearly, advances in product and component design must go hand in hand by progress in assembly system design and planning, and assembly system selection. Research is needed in areas such as modular assembly systems, applications of sensor-rich environments, and the improved assembly system reliability and performance. In addition, more attention needs to be paid to the way in which assembly machines are specified and designed to meet the requirements of the customer. Experience as an expert witness suggests that costly problems can be missed during the assembly system specification and development process through a lack of understanding related to the predictions of assembly production rates and machine "down-time".
When looking back, there was and still is an enormous potential for flexible assembly, the initial enthusiasm made some progress, but it became obvious after a while that a progress plateau was reached. It has been difficult to move away from that situation as most ideas have almost always made only imperceptible progress.
Now we at least think we know what the problems are, and another effort must bring interested parties together. That way, we hope to identify the issues that have prevented automatic assembly from becoming commonplace and improve the efficiency of those industries which adopt these methods. It may be again opportune to bring together the business and research community for the purpose of tackling these problems. Superficially, such an approach could be accused of striving to achieve the same targets as those highlighted almost 20 years ago; the assembly research community surely must have learned from the current lack of methods not to be over-ambitious and not promise solutions which are difficult or uneconomical to implement.
It is our view that these challenging problems need to be re-addressed and that progress is badly needed to make a significant contribution towards economic competitiveness.