Beyond the Conveyor Belt: Exploring Assembly Line Automation
If you were to stop and think of assembly line automation, images of an endless line of products thrumming along a series of conveyors will likely come to mind. And while conveyor systems are an integral part of any autonomous assembly line, they are but one important cog in an equally important wheel.
Manufacturing, as an industry, has gone through a massive shift in recent years. Specifically, we’re amid an ever-increasing reliance on automation technologies to perform the tasks previously performed using human labor. Benefits aside, there is much about assembly line automation that is truly fascinating.
In this article, we’ll look beyond conveyor systems and explore the other components and approaches that make autonomous assembly lines so fascinating.
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
Automated Guided Vehicles, or AGVs, are industrial robots that are principally used to safely transport everything from raw materials to finished products from point A to point B using a pre-configured path. Typically, the materials transported by AGVs are quite heavy; AGVs therefore reduce the risk to human workers and create efficiency for the business as AGVs require fewer resources and less time to complete the task. How they navigate the facility can differ significantly, depending on the AGV. For example, it is not uncommon for an AGV to be equipped with laser guided navigation systems that allow it to complete its objective while avoiding obstacles. Likewise, some AGVs rely upon radio signals emitted by wiring embedded in the factory floor, whereas others use sophisticated vision guidance systems to safely navigate the facility.
As you might well be able to infer, machine vision is a form of automation technology that employs cameras paired with robust image processing software to identify defects and inconsistencies in products, typically at speeds that far exceed the capabilities of the human eye.
These systems rely on digital sensors located within industrial cameras made from sophisticated components to capture multiple images a second that is then processed and analyzed against programmed criteria to determine whether a product is of sufficient quality. This information can then activate a mechanism to extract the defect from the assembly line without stopping production.
Outside the rapid pace of an industrial assembly line, machine vision technology can quickly and accurately measure the physical dimensions of components to ensure they are to spec or help an autonomous robotic arm perfectly align a part during manufacturing.
Regardless of the application, using machine vision in an industrial setting can greatly improve product quality while reducing the number of defective products manufactured.
Fully Automated vs Semi-Automated Systems
While many industries worldwide are leveraging increasingly sophisticated technologies to improve operations, there are vast differences in the systems they deploy. Depending on the application, the products being manufactured, and a manufacturer’s budget, automated operations will broadly fall into one of two categories: fully automated and semi-automated.
As the name implies, fully automated systems leverage robotics and assembly line automation to perform every task within the manufacturing cycle, from loading raw materials to packaging the finished product. Full automation lends itself well to mass production processes with little to no variability, such as manufacturing plastic soda bottles. Additional applications include other tasks that remain constant over the long term, like welding and material handling. These systems can be reprogrammed to alter the functions performed, but doing so may be difficult and create significant downtime.
These systems can operate around the clock with little to no human supervision, which, if the business is struggling with tight margins, can drastically reduce variable costs like labor.
For their part, semi-automated systems operate by balancing human labor and automated technologies to produce goods. Unlike fully automated systems ideal for high-speed mass production of low variability products, semi-automated systems are more widely used for lower-volume production, which tends to provide much more customization in the final product. These systems are more easily reprogrammed to meet changes in product design or to the needs of the business. The true benefit of a semi-automated system is that it allows the manufacturer to remain agile to emerging economic, regulatory, or societal trends.
To be clear, many processes within a semi-automated system are still completed without human intervention. Still, things like loading/unloading material, quality control, and packaging are often left to adept human hands.
Though not mentioned in the heading of this section, one more type of automation system should also be discussed: lean manufacturing automation. This approach leverages automation technology and historical data collected on the factory floor to identify areas of improvement, potential inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and operational optimizations.
Benefits of Assembly Line Automation
While many of the benefits of automation and assembly line automation have already been covered, here is a quick recap:
- Increase in productivity.
- Higher quality products/consistency in manufacturing.
- Reduction in variable costs like labor.
- Fewer defects.
- Efficient use of resources.
Assembly Line Automation is More than an Advanced Conveyor System
There’s no doubt that manufacturing is changing and changing for the better. Automation technologies are playing a disruptive role by efficiently replacing human labor and boosting productivity. Fortunately, displaced workers can reposition themselves into roles that still require a human touch.