Do you know what led to the first industrial revolution in the world? It’s the transition from hands to machines. Even in the less developed countries today, manufacturing doesn’t take place without the aid of machinery. And as industrial development has been taking place, we are now moving towards a complete automation in the process.
Industrialization may have begun with an opportunity to increase both production and employment, but today it is leading us towards less and less dependence on manpower. In such a case, would you call industrial automation a boon or a bane?
To get all these answers, let’s take a look at the current scenario of how manufacturing industries and industrial services work. We start by understanding the concept of industrial automation.
What is Industrial Automation?
To be accurate, it is a step ahead of mechanization where you no longer need hands to operate a machine – it happens with the help of programming and commands given at a higher level. In short, you’re using machines and industrial robots here that will do almost everything that humans can.
They can do a lot of things for which we’ve been dependent on manual labor like lifting and assembling objects, transporting materials from the factory to the warehouse and coordinating with your existing machinery needed for manufacturing. These machines and robots are programmed with artificial intelligence. So, you don’t need to constantly command them what to do next.
The question is, how important is it to have the presence of humans when your robots don’t need continuous control for operating? Well, you won’t need a lot of people inside your factory if you’re using robots. However, you surely do need a controller at a higher level who does the programming and can fix any technical issues you might face.
How Does it Work?
Industrial automation systems involve both machines and robots. You mostly control them through computer programs. The various electrical components that comprise of an automation system include:
Energy – The Action Element: This could be electricity or heat that your machine might need to start running or do the necessary job.
Sensor: It’s an important component for automation as it can determine the current state of the object and what needs to be done next. Indicators like dials and gauges are examples of a sensing mechanism.
Controllers: They’re the main operators of the automation system that collect information from the sensors and make the action element work.
Decision Elements: These are the components that distinguish automation systems from the regular machines. When you’re using a machine, you are the decision maker to take the next step. However, in an automation system, with the help of artificial intelligence and programming, the machine or robot knows what to do next based on the information given by the sensors.
The Program: You cannot create an automation system without a program. They’re a set of commands that make the system function on its own – from identifying the surrounding environment to taking the next step accordingly.
Let’s understand this with an example:
In a factory that’s manufacturing automobile parts, there are robots for lifting, placing, assembling and transporting components. You mostly control these machines through numerical commands. The manufacturing plant and the industrial robot will do the tiring and dangerous jobs for you.
Types of Industrial Automation and Their Applications
If you know about the different types of industrial robots, you’ll get a better understanding of the types of automation that exist. It is totally based on the level of control needed to carry out operations. To be precise, there are 4 types of automation systems in various industries:
This is ideal for mass production where you need a fixed set of equipment to carry out the process. You use this type of automation for a fixed product design. Usually, these machines work in a specific way. So, making modifications here can be difficult and tedious.
Examples: Transfer lines and conveyors
Just as the name suggests, you can modify the system if you need to make changes in your product design. They’re ideal when you need to change the size or design of your products after every batch.
Examples: Industrial robots and numerical control machine tools
This is one of the best kinds of automation systems you can use in manufacturing. This is because reprogramming these machines or robots is relatively faster and takes place at a higher level. This saves you time and thereby assists in greater production for the day.
Examples: Robotic arms
These are fully automated systems that function on computer control only. You can operate every machine or robot under this system using communication and information technology. The reason why they’re called “integrated” automation system is because you can coordinate the manufacturing process using a common database for all the machinery and robots.
Examples: Automated cranes and industrial robots
Applications of Automation
Almost every industry uses automation for manufacturing today – at least in the developed countries. The machines and robots do cost a good deal, but in the long run make your work faster and easier.
Here are some of the industries that use industrial automation:
FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods)
FMCG manufacturers are mostly into mass production of goods that mostly have a fixed product design. Having fixed or programmable automation proves to be very convenient here for faster and greater production. You even have robotic arms that help with packing, lifting, assembling, placing, transporting and trucking materials.
One of the main reasons why automation proves to be beneficial in an oil refinery is that the process involves dealing with varied temperature and pressure. The process of manufacturing petroleum from crude oil is quite complex. Automation helps make it faster and simpler.
Thus, apart from a maze of pipes and towers, you’ll find computerized control panels in a refinery. This helps you monitor everything in detail. You need very few people to watch over these and rarely do they need to make changes manually.
Iron & Steel
Here, you mostly need automation for the furnaces, sheet metal fabrication and rolling mills. The process of reducing iron to pig iron and making of steel also involves working with high and varied temperatures as well as pressures.
Manufacturing of heavy equipment like electrical tools, machinery, automotive parts and industrial goods, you do need robots that are capable of lifting, placing, assembling and transporting the objects from one place to another. Mostly, a combination of robotic arms and advanced welding machines are used for the process.
This industry deals with everything – from automotive design to manufacturing every part and assembling them into vehicles. Automation here is used for all the manufacturing steps with the help of industrial robotic arms – welding, painting, lifting and placing heavy objects and transportation.
Harnessing renewable energy is also one of the few applications of industrial automation. They’re mostly used for manufacturing various parts like solar cells, silicon modules, wind turbine blades and hydroelectric turbines are some examples. It is also used for other energy resources like nuclear energy – mainly for controlling the power plant.
Water Treatment Systems
Most water treatment plants are automated today for improving efficiency as well as safety. The automation is mostly applied for filtration and reversed flushing process to treat all kinds of residues, pathogens and harmful chemicals present in the water.
Why Do We Need Industrial Automation?
Till now, we have seen how industrial automation is useful and which all industries it can be useful to. However, the bigger question is why do we need it.
The reason we need industrial automation is the growing population of the world and it’s growing demands. It is becoming difficult to keep up with the rising demand by using conventional methods of production. To meet these demands, factories around the world are automating their process for increased production.
Pros and Cons of Industrial Automation
Given that industrial automation largely reduces the need of manual labor, there are both pros and cons on setting up the system for your factory. Since most of your competitors have widely accepted the technology, you cannot ignore it completely. Here’s how it will benefit you:
If you’re into mass production, you will need automation systems installed sooner or later. The speed at which a combination of conveyor belts and robotic arms can work cannot be compared to manual labor handling machines.
There are many tasks involved in manufacturing that are actually dangerous for humans. These include, welding, compressing, working in high temperatures and exposure to certain chemicals. Having robots in these areas proves to be better than risking a human life.
An automation system will not just have sensors and controllers performing the tasks, but will include a display through which you are able to monitor certain details. The data you receive from these systems are more accurate and exact in nature, helping you to act accordingly.
No Training Required
When you hire people, you have to train them for using the equipment and machinery. You hire a new laborer and repeat that process again. However, a robot is programmed to do multiple tasks once after which you hardly need to monitor its functioning.
Costs Lesser in the Long Run
Let’s face it – investing once in 10 years always proves to be better than continuously giving salary to plenty of workers every month. It doesn’t matter how cheap the labor is, having machinery and robots will provide you with better efficiency at a one-time cost.
Now if these are the benefits you receive, what are the possible disadvantages of automating your systems? Here’s the trouble:
Initial Cost is High
Even though I may have said it is cheaper in the long run, but when you’re automating your factory, having just one robotic arm doesn’t work. You need to have sufficient money for an entirely automated system at the moment.
Higher Level of Maintenance
Any type of machinery will require some maintenance – no matter how advanced they are. Here, you’re using a chain of machinery and probably some robotic arms. What you truly will be needing is someone who is educated and trained enough to monitor them at a higher level.
Loss of Jobs
As more and more processes get automated, the requirement for people will go down. This will result in huge job losses around the world.
Negative Impact on Environment
Industrial automation can lead to a negative impact of the environment. Automation requires installing of heavy machinery and robotic arms and machines. These machines require a lot of electricity to run.
This makes it a challenge as most of the electricity in countries like India and China is produced through non renewable energy sources like coal. Industrial automation will increase the demand for energy and the higher use of coal to produce electricity will result in more pollution to the environment.
How to Select the Right Type of Automation?
So, in order to make automation systems worth for your industry, you need to make your choice wisely. The setup that you’ll need for sheet metal fabrication will be way different from manufacturing of automotive parts. Here’s what you need to consider when you make your decision:
The Products You’re Manufacturing
The robotic arms you need for assembling a car are a lot more flexible than those needed for packing consumer goods. Likewise, the setup in a refinery will be way different from what is there in a textile factory.
If you are into mass production with a fixed product design, fixed automation is appropriate for you. On the other hand, if your product design changes more often, you’ll need a more flexible automation.
What Do You Need Automation for?
You might not need automation for every little task. There’s always room for partially automating and partially keeping tasks manual. For instance, lifting of heavy objects, dealing with high temperature and exposure to harmful chemicals can be done by industrial robots.
However, creativity and customization require the presence of humans along with automated systems that can aid them in yielding greater productivity. This is where having programmable or flexible automation works best – depending on the degree of changes needed in product designs.
Cost & Availability of Labor
Even for the most advanced automation system, you’ll need some labor present for monitoring and controlling the system. What kind of labor are you getting with greater ease – skilled or unskilled? You need to compare the cost of installing the automation and the expenses you incur behind its maintenance.
Usually, fixed automation systems cost the least due to their lack of flexibility. However, if that is not appropriate for your factory, there’s a choice for you to make – will hiring manual labor be cheaper than having an automation system?
Where Will Industrial Automation Lead Your Company?
If you’re into manufacturing, then you can’t run away from industrial automation. It has taken production to new levels and in the long run there’s no survival without it.
However, when you go for something like that, you need to make sure of two things – what is the nature of your production and how much do you require every day? This alone might help you figure out how much you’re ready to invest in automating your systems at the moment.