Tag Archives | Automation

Automation or automatic control, is the use of various control systems for operating equipment such as machinery, processes in factories, steering and stabilization of ships, aircraft and other applications with minimal or reduced human intervention.

The benefits of robotics process automation

Process automation enhances business development with a vast return on investment.

Author: Deanna M. Murray

In automation’s 60-year history, business executives and workers often hesitated to implement new technology before they supported its benefits. Robotics process automation (RPA) is the use of software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to accomplish repeatable tasks, previously requiring human interaction. Though there are jobs in nearly every industry that in time will no longer require human interaction due to automation, keeping RPA at arm’s length is a rejection of progress for businesses that want to develop and cultivate a competitive edge.

Automation benefits

Like any new technology or process, automation implementation does require upfront costs. But the use of automation can result in increased return-on-investment (ROI) because automation reduces labor costs, allowing employees to focus on more business-critical tasks instead of focusing on repeatable processes. According to Information Services Group, automation’s returns have garnered double-digit productivity improvements over outsourcing, and cost reductions between 14% and 28% have been realized.

Automation can also streamline regulatory compliance that imposes fines by virtually eliminating human error. With the correct automation solution, the cost savings reverberate throughout an organization and the ROI impacts multiple budget lines.

Automation can be complicated, but the beauty of this technology is its ability to easily scale from simple to complex. The key to understanding what type of automation can work for a particular application is to rediscover every aspect of each process then realistically think through what can be streamlined or eliminated in each action. Keep in mind that many current everyday processes exist because of automation—from simple automated stamp machines to complicated medical procedures. Automation can be applied to every business when the right automation experts critically looks at an organization’s practices.

Customer-facing businesses setting themselves apart with personal touches and big smiles should not shy away from automation as a business enhancement. In fact, the opposite is true. Automation implementation on the back-end processes can free up valuable time for employees to spend on more meaningful customer interactions—not less.

Business development, automation

Automation technology is ever-changing. But an update to automation technology only will need to change when processes or the business needs change. Unlike other business efficiency tools, it doesn’t require numerous software updates, renewals, or pricey upgrades. While there might be routine maintenance, automation expenses are controlled by the desire to expand the business and employ additional automation capabilities to realize greater benefits.

Automation is a sign of growth. It is a sign of efficiency and an investment that will pay off for years to come. Business owners frightened of RPA and what it stands for in regards to the future of the business should think of it as a natural step in expanding and keeping up with the needs of an ever-growing clientele.

While there are growing pains and staff realignments associated with many RPA implementations, current employees can use this opportunity to learn about automation and expand skillsets. Also, if an automation plan is inclusive, employees can contribute meaningful insights into the best ways for the automation to function and hence, support a more efficient RPA implementation.

If experts with a vast understanding of automation implementation and rethinking processes are put to use, automation can open the door to a new world in business development.

View the original article and related content on Control Engineering

Copyright: Copyright 2017 CFE Media LLC

Five tips for automating your food processing plant

To optimize ROI, it’s important to learn which areas of your food processing facility are best suited for automation. Below are five tips for improving your plant’s automation capabilities.

Author: Michael Griffith, Manager, Stellar

Total automation may be an ideal for most food processors, but it can be difficult to determine how to connect every system in a food plant-or if they should even be connected at all. To optimize ROI, it’s important to learn which areas of your food processing facility are best suited for automation. Below are five tips for improving your plant’s automation capabilities.

1. Leverage existing connected automation systems—Many systems are well-integrated on a common network and platform, but they don’t do much good if they aren’t fully integrated.

Consider a brewery that had a manual data system in place that was generating a great deal of useful data. Because its systems weren’t integrated it couldn’t put that data into context, making it relatively useless. Once the brewery installed a manufacturing execution system (MES), its packaging efficiency increased by 30 percent.

2. Implement overarching integration—On the packaging side of food processing plants, I often notice that processors have yet to fully implement integration across the number of individual components and machines that must run to have a fully functional packaging line. Often times, when one piece of process equipment malfunctions, the entire system stops working.

It’s important to tie all your equipment together in an overarching system so that the whole doesn’t suffer when one element stops working.

3. Use software to connect processing and packaging equipment—When talking with food processors, I find there is a lack of plant floor connectivity between processing and packaging areas. Why? While the networking capability DOES exist, there’s no software in place to connect the equipment from each area.

Considering space and labor are relatively inexpensive, the ROI on installing software like a material handling systems (MHS) can take up to 15 years, which is much longer than most processors have an appetite for (typically no more than three to four years). So, only recently have food processors recognized the value of a more integrated system.

Subsequently, older plants were often built with such an array of hardware and software that the integration isn’t always so easy.

4. Define a vision of the future—At Stellar, we’re typically involved with food plant owners on a project basis for automation. My focus in conversations with clients is to try to help them define a vision of the future-the sort of “blue sky” version of where they would like to be at some point in the future. Then, we define the scope of the current project as a logical step on the path to achieve the long-term vision.

You must understand the vision for where the system is intended to go. Then, make intelligent decisions about how to best spend capital on current projects to support that vision. It’s best to have a standard for hardware and software that is geared toward the fully integrated system you want to own someday. But keep in mind, technology changes:

  • On one hand, a small increase in costs now can sometimes future-proof the automation system purchased as part of the current project or equipment purchase.
  • On the other hand, it is not useful to add costs to a project to build in functionality that won’t be useful for two or more years.

5. Move toward becoming a data-driven business—The benefits of using real-time data outweigh the cost of implementing the systems that generate it. Automated data collection helps companies determine the root causes of performance issues, as well as enhance the efficiency of day-to-day processes. Automation isn’t limited to big companies; food processors of any size can make good use of data collection. For smaller processors looking to become more data-driven, there are resources available at a reasonable cost.

A historical data repository (historian) is the foundational technology food processors need to add value to their existing equipment and processes. A historian connects to all the existing automation, and is also scalable to include additional points when future automation projects are completed.

Manufacturing execution systems (MES) help track and document in real time the transformation of raw materials to finished goods, which is vital to the efficiency of daily processes.


View the original article and related content on Plant Engineering

Copyright: Copyright 2016 CFE Media LLC

Seeing the Future with 3D Vision

Written by Michael Lindley, VP of Business Development and Marketing

Robotic work cells are providing several benefits in cost and productivity. But they can be made even more effective with 3D laser scanning systems.

cake decorating systemOver the past 18 months, the demand for robotic work cells that target business issues has skyrocketed. On a continual basis, we see clients who are achieving a return on investment (ROI) by cutting operating costs, increasing productivity and reducing errors.

The robotic work cells can be made even more effective with the addition of 3D laser scanning technologies. The scanning is able to capture all aspects of a part, allowing us to inspect and analyze objects or environments, which is often necessary for the measurement and data collection on the exact shapes and orientations. By employing 3D technologies, we develop a more robust data set, creating a smarter solution that can be used in more variable work conditions.

Various industries can utilize 3D scanning systems—from manufacturing and engineering to design, development and surveying, to movies, art and medicine. It often results in two key benefits: lower-cost manufacturing processes and higher-quality products (increasing yield). It has been estimated that 3D scanning can reduce manufacturing costs by 75 percent.

Based on our experience, below are a few examples of how businesses can benefit from 3D scanning systems.

The 3D concept phase

When working with clients, we often go through a concept phase prior to starting the actual design work. At this stage, clients are thinking about the big picture—the inputs and outputs, and how a work cell fits into the overall manufacturing process. What we have found is that we can use 3D scanners during the idea generation phase to digitize objects and then use them to interpret and enhance concept diagrams. The more work that can be done virtually, the more will be saved when it comes to final design and build. The 3D scans that we generate during the design phase can be incorporated into robot simulation tools offered by leading manufacturers—Fanuc Roboguide or ABB RobotStudio.

3D scanning for design development

By employing 3D technologies, we develop a more robust data set, creating a smarter solution that can be used in more variable work conditions.

As discussed, 3D scanning can be applied at the beginning of the design phase by scanning a physical object to generate a computer-aided design (CAD) model. Our designers usually need to design around existing parts and part tolerances. By having 3D models of the parts we will be handling, we can drastically improve the accuracy of the final design because so much of the trial-and-error work can be done with software. 3D model scanning systems can benefit the actual design process in the following ways:

  • Increase the effectiveness of working with complex parts and shapes.
  • Assist with the design of input/output mechanisms for the work cell.
  • If CAD models are outdated, a 3D scan will provide an updated version.
  • 3D scanners quickly capture all physical measurements of any object.
  • A 3D scanner ensures that the parts fit together on the first try.
  • Assist with end-of-arm tooling for robots to ensure end effectors properly handle and manipulate parts.
  • Scanners use modern manufacturing on parts that were manufactured before CAD existed.
  • Allows for a comparison between as-designed models and as-built parts.

3D scanning—maximizing investments

We have discussed the many ways 3D scanning technologies can improve the concept and design phases of a robotic work cell. Outside of those applications, we have had numerous incidents where we have employed 3D scanning to create more flexibility in a work cell. For example, by using 3D scanning, we are able to locate parts in space and, if required, provide a path offset to a robot so it can handle a part that is in a random orientation. Another example is to use 3D scanners to inspect the part before it is handled by the robot. By scanning the part, we can compare it to the “golden model,” and if it is out of compliance we can pass over it or sweep it into a rework bin. Last, by scanning parts, we can determine what it is and then execute the corresponding robot program. This creates dynamic functionality, which requires less input from an operator, allowing them to focus on other tasks.

The world of 3D scanning technologies is rapidly expanding. With more processing power, lower price points and easier user interfaces, it is safe to say these technologies are here to say. If you are in the market for 3D scanning, check out the new solutions from leading manufactures such as Sick, Cognex, Keyence and Hermary.

Michael Lindley is vice president of business development and marketing at Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association(CSIA). See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

Meggitt Robotic Drilling Workcell

Meggitt Polymers & Composites recently updated their manufacturing operations by installing a Drill and Cutting workcell, designed and integrated by Concept Systems. The fully automated workcell uses a Fanuc M-710 series robotic arm and state of the art end of arm tooling to drill and cut material for the aerospace industry. The goal of this project was to improve accuracy and throughput of thousands of parts, allowing Meggitt Polymers & Composites to meet the needs of their customers.

Project duration: 4 months

Client: 1
Concept Systems: 4

Concept Systems’ time on site: 2 weeks

Headquartered in the United Kingdom, Meggitt PLC is an international group employing some 8,000 people specializing in aerospace equipment, high performance sensors, defense training and combat systems. Meggitt Polymers & Composites, in McMinnville, OR focuses on delivering gaskets and seals to rigorous standards to be used by some of the world’s leading manufacturers.

Meggitt Polymers & Composites had an opportunity to expand their business with a current client, but to do so, they would have to increase production by means other than human labor. Historically, the work on these parts was being done manually in a labor intensive manner. Production rates were limited to an average of 1000 parts per year, but needed to increase production by 300%, or 3000 parts per year, to meet demand. In addition to throughput, accuracy and safety were of high concern.

“A lot of these operations were being done by hand, and we were missing holes,” James Robertson, Meggitt’s vice president of operations, said in a recent news article featuring the project. “This enabled us to simplify the process and improve our quality.”

Concept Systems kicked off the project by meeting with the project manager at Meggitt, to first understand their operations, concerns and goals, ensuring the right solution was delivered based on measurable results and a favorable return on investment.  Once the objectives, timelines, and goals were established, Concept moved forward with the design of the workcell.

The system that Concept created for the drill and cutting project is a fully automated workcell featuring a Fanuc M-710 Robot. The workcell boasts an integrated tool changer that provides seamless interchange of tools, allowing continuous production of the desired hole shape and size for 8 different parts. Further, Concept designed end-of-arm tooling to accommodate 14 automated, interchangeable options for drilling and cutting.  To support flexibility of the workcell, Concept also designed and provided fixture racks to accommodate 8 different parts. All of this was under the direction of a thorough risk assessment based on ANSI/RIA R1506-2012: safety first design of the workcell and all components.

Technology used in workcell:

  • Fanuc M-710iC Series Robot
  • ServoRobot Tool Changer
  • PushCorp High Torque Servo Toolholder
  • Tool Changing Station
  • 4 Custom Built Part Fixtures
  • Safety Interlocked System Guarding: Light Curtain, Area Scanner, Dust Hood

The workcell has now been in production for over 6 months and the initial results show that the project was a success. Meggitt has expanded their production capacity to 3000 parts per year – a 300% increase as per the project goal. Meggitt has also achieved high precision and repeatability from the robot and tools which significantly reduced rework and product loss. Last, the physical guard fencing, door interlocks, and area scanners provide the latest in worker protection.

Preventing Extensive Downtime From Equipment Failure

When updating or maintaining older equipment, it’s important to have maximum visibility into plant operations and make every investment dollar count.

As a company that specializes in automation controls, we field a lot of different requests from clients who want a quick budgetary quote to retrofit an older piece of equipment. These requests usually come in after a piece of machinery has failed and the company has encountered one of three scenarios: 1) The company doesn’t have any documentation. 2) The last person to work on this machine has retired, and no one has been trained. 3) Replacement parts have finally become too difficult to find, even on eBay. There are other reasons, of course, but most often a client is responding to some situation that has left the company exposed to a much larger downtime risk than previously thought.

I want to discuss two different prevention techniques in hopes of providing some insight for companies to consider as they wrestle with keeping equipment current—and we all do! First, don’t be caught off guard with not knowing how and when a piece of equipment is likely to fail. There are several software options available today that provide performance data and maintenance scheduling, helping companies avoid unplanned downtime. Second, consider a machine retrofit as a way of preparing for tomorrow’s manufacturing instead of just reacting to a problem with a rush to update the machine.

Software solutions for machine monitoring have come a long way in the past five years. I don’t know if it can be considered a “mature” market, but there are many established providers that have proven their solutions. Conveniently for users, there are several options available from complete software platforms that monitor everything from CNCs, robots, PLCs and test stands to simple offerings that are designed to provide real-time monitoring per single device. Regardless of your specific needs, be assured that you have options that can be found with some basic Google searching. To make matters easier, a lot of these software providers offer their solutions via a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, which reduces the risk of overcommitting and lowers upfront costs.

All this to say that it is wise to seriously consider employing a machine monitoring software tool of some sort sooner rather than later. The advantages of doing so far outweigh the risk. Consider some of the benefits: scheduled maintenance events based on known wear, use or observed conditions; dashboard monitoring and/or reporting available via desktop computer or mobile devices; uptime and throughput reports to monitor trends; and automated alarming provides alerts that will send alert condition messages to supervisory personnel to facilitate an immediate response. With so many software solutions available provided as flexible options like SaaS, it is a good time to develop and implement a strategy that takes the guessing out of machine monitoring.

The second key aspect to keep in mind when maintaining or updating older equipment is when you evaluate a retrofit investment, consider what you can do to make that piece of machinery or that production line ready for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). In the not so distant future, experts predict whole manufacturing floors will be populated by intelligent machines that are able to monitor themselves, schedule their own maintenance and provide constant monitoring. This future state will allow machines to interoperate and create dramatic efficiencies not possible today. Machines will do this by dynamically adjusting to manufacturing conditions to ensure maximum efficiency. Although all of what is predicted is very exciting, we won’t get there overnight. The clear majority of manufacturers will use a phased approach to slowly migrate equipment to Industry 4.0 requirements over the next decade, since very few companies have the luxury of starting their production strategies from scratch.

Companies can prepare for the future by utilizing their automation roadmap, or 3- to 5-year manufacturing plan, to ensure that any investment made in a machine retrofit will not only be applicable in the future, but will also be an advantage as they phase in more Industry 4.0 equipment. Learn why an automation roadmap is essential to remaining competitive. Not sure how to get started? Learn how to get started on an automation roadmap.

There are several software options available today that provide performance data and maintenance scheduling, helping companies avoid unplanned downtime.

Here are some important things to consider with a retrofit: network compatibility, whether wired or wireless; security protocols to ensure all data is protected; virtualization (consider server consolidation and thin client architecture); and an interface that provides operators and decision-makers with valuable information to make appropriate, timely decisions.

In today’s world, the information coming at us is unlimited and it can feel like we are constantly reacting to issues and scenarios. When updating or maintaining older equipment, it is crucial that we take a proactive approach. To do this, ensure you have maximum visibility into plant operations as described above and make every investment dollar count when you retrofit equipment to be fully prepared for tomorrow’s manufacturing.

As a final comment, integrators certified by the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) can be an invaluable resource whether you are considering manufacturing software or creating an automation roadmap. Often, integrators have worked in a vast range of manufacturing scenarios and they can leverage that knowledge to the benefit of the client.

Michael Lindley is vice president of business development and marketing at Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

Why Automation is Good for the Economy

When science fiction writers started to predict that robots would someday take over many of the jobs that human workers do, they probably didn’t realize that the time would come so quickly. In the last 10 years, engineers and computer scientists have made rapid advances in the design and production of robots. Computers and robots are everywhere, but especially in the manufacturing industry. Automation will certainly change the way people do work, but that doesn’t mean that the overall number of jobs will decrease or that the economy will suffer. We can tell you about some of the ways that automation will increase jobs and the overall growth of the economy.

The Saved and Re-Invested Company Money

If a manufacturer invests in automation, it can save the business money and create jobs for people who assemble, design, and maintain the automated machines. There’s always the risk that the jobs that have become automated will be lost, but when companies have more money, they can hire in other areas, increase their existing employees’ wages, or start new off-shoot companies. This creates more money flowing through the economy and provides opportunities.

The Nature of Technological Advancement

In terms of the people creating and maintaining the machines, their skills will be highly valued. More people will study engineering and robotics, and skilled jobs will steadily grow in demand. Even what could be considered unskilled jobs, or assembly of machines or routine maintenance, will need to be completed by humans. Over the course of history, humans and machines have always worked in tandem. When the first stone chisel was invented, it took fewer people and less work to cut things, but it created a whole new field of possibilities for what humans could do with the saved time and energy. If you think about the evolution of technology as this type of progress, saved and redistributed effort, then robots are just the next phase and the economy will continue to adapt and flourish as a result. Economies adapt to these types of shifts in each age, and preventing innovation isn’t really an option anyway.

Staying Competitive

The fact is, automation has been proven to save companies resources, so eventually any company that wants to be competitive is going to invest in it. If a country wants to stay at the top of their respective field, they’ll invest in this convenient and cutting-edge technology. Automation will not only create new types of jobs and increase liquid revenue in the economy, it will also pave the way for even more advances in the future that will be the foundation of economies then.