Factory automation is an integrated industrial process that uses various technologies to automate tasks, processes and production designed to maximize output and efficiency while reducing overall costs. By definition, factory automation involves how products are manufactured, assembled, packaged, machined, etc. Also involved in the process is the use of control systems that utilize computer software to program equipment and machinery to perform manufacturing tasks that were historically performed manually. By automating manual processes, not only are costs significantly reduced but the safety of workers is improved, especially in hazardous environments.
This blog will provide a brief description of IoT-enabled factory automation, the different types of factory automation as well as some of the benefits for today’s IoT enterprises.
What is IoT-Enabled Factory Automation?
As mentioned above, factory automation is an application of Industrial IoT (IIoT) that uses IoT-enabled sensors and other technologies to automate various manufacturing processes, monitor equipment performance for predictive maintenance and condition monitoring applications as well as ensure on-site safety for factory personnel.
Different Types of Factory Automation
Most industries today have some type of automation but the degree will vary based on budget, process and other criteria.
a.) Manual/Minimal Automation
This type is very manual in nature and there is little automation involved. Some examples include manual product assembly and quality inspection. This type of automation relies heavily on human judgment and highly trained experts who need to have extensive knowledge in the field.
b.) Single Automated Machines
This automation type involves the use of single machines to automate a single automated process/task such as inspection and/or cutting certain packaging. Any parts involved in the manufacturing process are manually inserted and positioned into the equipment.
c.) Automated Production Lines
An automated production line consists of a series of dedicated workstations that are connected by a transfer system to move parts between the stations. These lines are typically set up for long production runs, sometimes making millions of product units and running for several years between changeovers. This type of automation is used in many industries, most notably the automotive industry. In a fully automated line, operators are only needed for monitoring, supervision and making any necessary adjustments to the equipment during production.
d.) Fully automated (end-to-end)
The ultimate type of automation is fully automated where there are no operators and the factories can run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. On assembly lines, automated guided vehicles, remote diagnostics, robots, sensors and other technologies make it easier than ever to implement this type of factory automation with little human intervention involved in the process.
Key Benefits of Factory Automation
Today’s IoT enterprises are embracing factory automation and for good reason. Not only does it save manufacturing companies money by reducing the human labor required to identify process inefficiencies, but the use of smart sensors and robotics has been shown to reduce costs for factories by 15 percent. Below are just a few of the key benefits:
Factory automation generates data that can help identify inefficiencies or bottlenecks in processes. As a result, product quality is significantly improved by eliminating opportunities for human error.
Minimizes waste and maximizing output:
By optimizing processes and streamlining operations, inventory requirements are continuously updated helping to reduce product waste. For example, smart sensors and robotics are used to monitor the performance of machines in real-time including their overall efficiency and output. If an asset begins to show signs of failure, the staff is notified immediately allowing for faster remediation minimizing unplanned downtime and/or a factory shutdown.
Keeping Employees Safe:
Factory automation helps to decrease the potential for human error as a result of repetitive tasks. In addition, by automating repetitive tasks, worker fatigue is reduced resulting in improved employee satisfaction as well as minimizing the number of onsite accidents and/or injuries. This is especially true for hazardous area environments.
In sum, today’s manufacturers are tapping into the potentials that factory automation provides. As technology evolves, the list of IoT applications in automation will continue to grow and many of today’s smart manufacturing companies will automate many of their processes to remain competitive and reduce costs for long-term ROI.