By Ashley Belliveau
New Trends in Automated Machines
The manufacturing industry has significantly evolved over the years, from the first industrial revolution when water and steam powered machines, to mass production and assembly lines using electricity in the second, to the adoption of computer and automation technology in the third. Today, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another transformation commonly referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, that optimizes the digitization of the third revolution with smart and autonomous systems fueled by data and machine learning.
According to Electronic Design magazine, Industry 4.0 “holds tremendous potential for manufacturing companies in numerous industries to enable product customization, provide flexibility to meet new demands in real-time, and produce more efficient operations.” As technological concepts progress and we near yet another industrial revolution (Industry 5.0), we’ve outlined some of the top industrial automation machine trends to watch.
Industrial Internet of Things
Perhaps the biggest driver of Industry 4.0 is the evolution of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). The IIoT refers to the connectivity of machines, data, and people. Integrating automated machines with customer data offers enhanced machine performance diagnostics, so automated machines can monitor and report:
- Productivity (e.g., machine rate, running performance, total output, etc.) by station, fixture, and/or operator.
- Precise part tracking and location throughout the system.
- Failed inspection tracking by batch/lot number, station, fixture and/or operator.
Low Cost of Robotic Arms
The use of robotic arms is becoming more widespread in automated machines due to many factors including, decreasing costs. Over the past couple of years, for example, companies, such as Fanuc and Epson, have launched a low-cost SCARA (Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm) to complete simple operations where a 6-axis robot may have had more functionality than the application needs. As prices decrease, robotic arms will become more accessible for more manufacturers.
Skilled Manufacturing Workforce Harder to Find
A widening skills gap has left many manufacturing companies struggling to find skilled and reliable workers. According to Deloitte, the skills gap in the manufacturing industry may create an estimated 2.4 million worker shortage over the next decade, with positions relating to skilled production and operations managers being three times as difficult to fill. To help fill the skills gap, automation is providing a viable solution to keep production moving as demand increases within the manufacturing industry.
Collaborative robots, simply referred to as “cobots,” allow people to work interactively with robots. While cobots are typically not as precise or as fast moving as a traditional robotic arm, they are ideal for assembly line processes or tight situations where it might not be possible to have a robot operating behind a safety barrier. As a result of this emerging trend, it’s been reported that cobots are already boosting efficiency, productivity, and safety within manufacturing processes and systems.
More Precision in Manufacturing Technology
The evolution of robot precision has enabled more processes, such as microscopic assembly, to be automated. Mecademic’s Meca500, for example, has become a valuable asset for small-part automation projects. Because it’s so small and rigid compared with other industrial robots, it’s considered the most precise 6-axis robot arm in the world and can be used for a wide range of applications, including precision assembly, testing and inspection, microprecision positioning, material handling, and dispensing.
SDC has experience designing and building machines and systems for precise manufacturing. For example, our team of experts recently created a machine comprised of three small robots working together with microscopic precision to assemble the camera and focus the lens on an endoscope.
Taking precision a step further, wire EDM (electrical discharge machining) can make a part that is more precise than any other previous technology. SDC frequently uses wire EDM machining for automated machines that have specific requirements and tight allowable tolerances. We can make one very accurate part to make the process work, compared with many parts working together, which is an advantage that can mean great cost savings on our automated machines.
Along with robotic precision, advances in machine vision have opened up the possibility for automated machines to perform much more precise and complicated work. For example, 3-D bin picking is an emerging technology that’s designed to quickly and easily recognize and pick parts that are randomly presented in a bin. As benefits such as high speed, improved accuracy, greater efficiency, and reduced costs are recognized within the manufacturing industry, machine vision technology will be increasingly integrated with automated machines.
In almost every machine SDC builds, we use machine vision to make sure each operation in the assembly process was completed correctly. The vision system sends a “pass/fail” message to the machine to understand whether a part should be “rejected” or move forward in the automation process. Machine vision is also useful for part tracking, as the machine is able to track the part and where it is in the automation process based on each pass/fail test.
3-D printing technology has dramatically evolved over the years, allowing companies to quickly adapt to the ever-changing industry demands. With 3-D printing, parts can be quickly prototyped for research and development, allowing concepts to be tested more thoroughly before being implemented into a full-scale production. This translates into benefits including faster speed to market, reduced research and development costs, and 40 to 70 percent less material to manufacture a product compared with traditional methods, according to Automation World. 3-D printing also allows parts on your automated machine to be quickly replaced to keep production moving while you wait an official replacement from the manufacturer.
Similar to 3-D printing, simulations can be leveraged to prove concepts before a design is finalized and a machine is built. As designing and testing physical machines becomes more difficult due to software complexity, a digital twin can be created via simulation to predict outcomes based on variable data. With simulation technology, manufacturing processes and systems can be virtually tested and optimized for lower research and development costs compared to physical testing.
Shift to Electrical
Another major trend we’re noticing is a shift toward industrial automated machines performing more electrical, rather than mechanical, work. This trend is emphasized within the automotive industry due to the rise in hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles. For example, SDC has designed and built many machines that process and assemble electrical connectors, PCBs, wire terminals and also designed and built a series of machines to automatically create complete assemblies of electrical wiring harnesses (as shown above).
Experts in Intelligent Designs and Innovative Solutions
As a leading engineering company, SDC understands that we need to be continually adapting and growing in order to stay relevant and provide our customers with the best machines possible. Looking to the future, we must prepare for the fast-approaching Industry 5.0, where we can expect the concepts mentioned above to progress while new trends emerge.
At SDC, we’re continually investing in our people, processes, and technology to bring our customers the brightest engineering solutions, enabling them to continually improve in-plant manufacturing operations, meet demand, and increase their bottom line. Contact SDC today to discuss your upcoming automation project. In the meantime, check out some of our past projects.