The Automation Bandwagon

Turning Point

This month, our cover story emphasizes automation. As you can see from our cover photo, this often is represented by the application of robots on the shop floor.

These flexible and increasingly inexpensive machines can be a tremendous boon to productivity and throughput for an array of discrete parts manufacturers. Moreover, in many applications, they can be a bridge to the popular goal of lights-out manufacturing that many shops are in pursuit of.

Something you may notice about our cover that is a bit unusual is the proximity of the operator to robot. In our story, a new class of robots, called collaborative robotics, is presented and shown in use.

According to the manufacturer, Universal Robots, these machines use force sensing technology that is effective enough to stop any robot motion when it encounters an unknown object in its path. Man and machine can co-exist side by side. If viewed as a tool (which it is), the robot is a labor saving device rather than labor eliminating.

By virtue of the advances in “mechatronics,” the blending of mechanical devices with electronics, what was once promissory technology is now reality. This is playing out not just in robotics, but in virtually all aspects of applied automation technology.

I can remember when industrial robots first hit the manufacturing scene in the 1970s and 80s with early adapters like Unimation and Cincinnati Milacron being touted as the beginning of a revolution.

The Unimate was not an articulated arm, as we now see the industrial robot, which restricted its range of motion. In the case of the Milacron machine, it was hydraulically actuated, which restricted where it could be applied.

These robots and others of the time were further restricted by the speed and memory capacity of their controllers. Back in those days, memory was often measured in feet, a nod to the length of NC tape that could be held in the buffers.

However, the idea of robots was captivating and while “generation one” was less than fulfilling of its promise, with the need for worker separation necessitated by occasional loss of the robot’s computer mind, development continued. Applications for robots and the myriad of other automation devices such as loaders, bar feeders, pick-and-place devices and advances in vision technology have geometrically increased the value of these machines in the modern manufacturing environment.

The mechatronics of today has produced a reliable, easily programmable and extremely useful tool in the manufacturer’s arsenal. Moreover, this reliability, and developments in sensing technology, has led us to the practical application of collaborative robots, which is the subject of our cover story.

Another lesson that has been learned, or put another way, a fear that has been overcome, is worker displacement from robotic and other forms of automation. Labor is not replaced by these machines, but saved. They are labor saving devices that free people to do more value-added work. Time has shown this to be correct and that increasing skill levels, and thus value, is a good thing.

Automation is not new. It has been going on, to one degree or another, since people first chipped a piece of flint with a rock. Automation is in our DNA as we strive to find better, faster and more consistent ways to perform necessary tasks, thus freeing us up to do other things that help our standard of work and living move forward. In manufacturing, it has manifested in machines and accessories that lighten the physical burden of work, and potentials for injury, in ways that mechanize tasks often by distancing people from the source.

What we are seeing in manufacturing has occurred in industries before. Agriculture comes to mind. Once a majority of Americans worked on farms. As automation was developed in the form of the cotton gin, the reaper, steel plow and eventually the combine and self-propelled tractor, the number of farmers went down, but the production of food went up.

Many of these farmers went to work in factories and for a long time survived in what was a relatively insulated marketplace of domestic suppliers and consumers. Today, we compete globally and many of those traditional manufacturing jobs can be and are being automated.

Those workers who have experienced these changes find new ways to contribute to their company. It’s been the pattern for a long time and is not going to stop. Manufacturing will continue to find better, faster, more efficient ways to produce goods and services necessary for progress.