Flexible Versus Hard Automation: What Role Does Each Play in Manufacturing?

Flexible Versus Hard Automation: What Role Does Each Play in Manufacturing?

May 07, 2017

Society has changed considerably in the last hundred years. In fact, we take sometimes take for granted the way in which we live; how products are readily available due to mass production with the ability to ship anywhere in the world. No longer are we constrained by vast distances, with most nations eager to participate in trade with the international community.

The rapid development of machinery in the early nineteenth century brought with it the industrial revolution where mass production of products quickly grew to become the way companies created their inventory. This enabled them to quickly expand into markets that they ordinarily would not have been able to. This meant more revenue streams and the likelihood of being able to make substantial profits.

A welcome side effect to this rapid growth was the need to hire workers that could work the new assembly lines, picking and packing products to be shipped, or putting products together. It provided good, reliable work for many people. A high number of workers could be trained for these jobs without the need for specialized schooling and could essentially be placed in their new role working the line on their first day on the job.

Modern Day Production Plants

Fast forward a hundred years and things have started to change significantly. Robotics have replaced humans for many repetitive tasks within assembly and production lines, as well in the areas of preparing goods for shipment. Factory work as a whole looks much different these days, as there are fewer line workers working entry level type warehousing jobs and more folks with specialized training and education, such as PLC Programmers and Robotics Technicians. With all of the robots that are used in productions plants, more team members with the skills required to maintain and use these robots have been needed. It’s not surprising why so many companies have replaced humans for many tasks, what with all of the benefits of having full fledged automation handling jobs that require precision and speed. For example, robots excel in the areas of flexible and hard automation. Each of these also have their own uses and contribute in different ways to the overall production of a production plant. For example:

  • Flexible/Soft Automation:
    Flexible or Soft automation typically refers to machines that require very little in the way of changeovers when changing from one product type to the next. They’re able to handle several different types of products and also offer very little downtime lost when reprogramming the machine and altering the set up.
  • Hard Automation: 
    Hard Automation refers to using specialized equipment to automate processing or assembly operations. Each operation is a programmed sequence, typically a simply movement, adjustment, speed, tension change, grasp or other type of handling change. Hard Automation typically has a specific task or process in order to create a product or complete a task.

Automation will generally provide the following benefits:

  • High Productivity: robots can work up to 24 hours a day, only needing to stop when they might need maintenance or implementation of a changeover.
  • Increased Quality: Automation lowers the number of errors during the manufacturing process to levels not attainable by human workers.
  • Increased Safety: Automation is incredibly safe as a result of being programmed for specific tasks and with the ability to test processes prior to implementation, eliminating employee error leading to workplace injuries.

In High Demand

As automation has propagated throughout many industries, the types of workers in the plants in which automation is found has shifted. Fewer entry level positions are available as these jobs have been replaced with robots that now do these tasks quicker, safer and for less money. However, the ability to maintain the robots and those with specialized knowledge of how to properly operate them have now replaced those workers. This means that as companies continue to use these machines in their production plants, the need for those specialized workers will continue to become more in demand.

Luckily, the skills required for these roles can be obtained through online technology courses that will provide students with certificates of completion when they have finished their studies. These courses are fantastic as they not only provide students with the skills they will need for these high demand roles, but also allow them to complete their studies at their own pace and from anywhere there is an internet connection. Course of study include Programmable Logic Controller Technician, Robotics Technician, Electromechanical Technician and Automation Technician to name a few.

It’s a new frontier of how we use technology in the workforce, and those with the curiosity and desire to be a part of the change will rush to get certified. The chance to participate in change as we see ourselves on the cusp of it -- in the workforce and of course in society throughout the world -- will no doubt be motivating. What can we expect to see in 5 or 10 years time? Will automation morph manufacturing into a new, hybrid industry? It’s on the horizon for us to see. Will we be ready for it?

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