Emerald Group Publishing Limited
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Flexible automation can be beneficial to large and small manufacturing
Article Type: Viewpoint From: Assembly Automation, Volume 30, Issue 2
This paper discusses “flexible manufacture,” its features, and how it can be beneficial to both large and small manufacturing companies in the long term. The recent conference of the 19th International Conference on Flexible Automation and Intelligent Manufacturing (FAIM 2009) which was hosted at the University of Teesside in England, managed to draw large numbers of delegates from all corners of the world, the FAIM 2009 conference was designed to focus on contemporary and emerging trends, developments and problems in industry, and is a forum for practitioners and academics at the forefront of their fields to exchange ideas and concerns. The aim was to assist the local industries in a time of economic downturn by bringing together expertise within the manufacturing environment to look at production improvements in the next decade. Delegates from more than 37 countries tried to find the best-practice and future trends within the area of regional and global competitiveness as well as rapidly advancing technologies in flexible automation, information management, and sustainable and intelligent manufacturing.
The product development and manufacturing industry is constantly changing and adapting to global conditions, some of the most recent issues include meeting the customer’s requirements with a high-quality outcome as quickly as possible, and as cost effective as possible. With competition between companies continuing to grow during the recent economic downturn, it is important to identify any issues within a production process and improve it if at all possible. There are a number of ways that companies can enhance their production and manufacture processes.
Many companies have attempted to improve their own production processes by importing their products from countries such as China, allowing them to reduce the manufacture costs. However, by moving production abroad, the company may be unable to maintain their own quality control standards, resulting in lower quality or “cheap” products. Because of this, some companies have chosen to continue producing their own products in-house, but have instead considered automation and optimisation to improve their production.
Improving the production process includes several other factors other than machining and assembly: the use of sales, design, development, costing, material selection and many other product-based decisions would all need to be examined in detail by the company. All aspects of the product(s) would need to be identified and justified, these stages could then be considered in relation to “flexible automation.”
One solution to streamlining and improving a production process is through the use of “flexible automation,” where a manufacturing system is automated using individual “work cells” which are combined to produce the final product. The use of “flexible automation” has become increasingly popular in recent years, with both larger and smaller sized companies investing in new technology and processes intended to improve their own manufacturing outcomes.
“Flexible automation” can include a wide range of processes, including: part handling, welding, inspection and assembly. Tools such as conveyer belts, rotating chambers and robotic arms could also be incorporated into the process, allowing the product(s) to be completed as accurately and effectively as possible.
The principle of “flexible automation” can lead to further improvements within a company, including reduced floor space, reduced delivery and production lead times, increased quality and also an improved method of implementing changes to the product’s design. This can also lead to a much more streamlined production process, which can be effectively managed and controlled either manually or automatically.
By mapping out a production process, it can then be analysed to select a number of “work cells” within the process. These individual “cells” would then be used to break down the production into the key stages required to complete the product(s). Depending on the company and the product(s) in question, the number of “work cells” could vary from as little as two or three stages for smaller objects to potentially dozens for larger components and products.
Some of the products that have benefitted from the use of flexible automation include: electrical components, automobiles, and furniture. These industries in particular use large numbers of individual components, requiring many “work cells” for these products to be effectively produced. However, much smaller scale products such as moulded parts, machinery parts and consumer goods have also benefitted from the use of flexible automation.
The use of CNC, as well as CAD-CAM and rapid prototyping/rapid manufacture equipment has revolutionised how many products are produced, assembled and completed by companies. The technology used for such systems is constantly changing and improving. CAD-based manufacture, combined with automated production allows many products to be completed in-house with little or no human interaction required.
By using a computer system to effectively manage and control the overall manufacturing process, the risk of faulty components or damaged tools can be reduced as a result. Additional control factors such as component size, position, feed rate, speed, tool change, and temperature control could all be managed using a computerised system. A central computer system would allow these processes, tasks and control factors to be managed and maintained.
Quality control can be greatly enhanced through the use of “flexible automation,” using a computerised monitoring system to assess the shape, weight, surface finish and overall quality of each manufactured component. Any defective parts can be identified and separated, and if several defective parts are noticed in a short period of time, the system can also halt production until the fault has been rectified.
Mechanical systems and robot tools can be used to enhance the production process, reducing the need for human assistance. By using individual computer programs for each product, the mechanical/robot tool operations can be quickly changed from one product to the next, by simply selecting the desired program for the intended product. These programs can significantly reduce both the changeover time and work space required during the production process.
Manufacturing companies that have used “flexible automation” to enhance their production services consider it a worthy investment. The initial startup cost for an automated system may be high, but the potential savings in work space, cycle time and an increase in production rate and overall quality can justify these expenses in the long term. However, even during the recent economic downturn there have been companies who have invested in these systems to enhance their production, and gain an advantage over their competitors.
Overall, the principle of “flexible automation” has proven to be beneficial with a number of manufacturing companies, both large and small. It allows the company to have improved control over their production at all times, allowing their products to be produced at a high quality as quickly as possible and as cost effective as possible in the long term.
Farhad NabhaniProfessor of Manufacturing and Biomechanics at the School of Science and Engineering, Teesside University, Middlesbrough, UK