Motivations to gain a competitive advantage or to bring production back home are driving high-tech manufacturers (especially in industrialized, high-wage countries) to pursue the vision of high automation, and, ultimately, the “lights out” factory. However, turning the vision into viable plan is an immensely challenging process.
Right now, a truly “lights out” factory is not really feasible at reasonable costs. However, the industry continues to work toward increasing levels of automation. The aim is to always automate repetitive and error-prone activities while also improving capabilities to generate knowledge which will further enable and support manufacturers in the development of new products and technologies.
Before going too much further, let’s define what is meant as various concepts regarding automation are discussed. Given the complexities of manufacturing, along with the effort and expense involved with enabling automation, there are usually various levels of automation present within the same production environment.
Manual to Low-Automation
Manual or low-automation processes are characterized as involving mostly manual activities such as data collection, loading/unloading and transportation of material, and management of spreadsheets and paper travelers. These manual activities are driven by shop floor personnel. That said, there may be some very basic system and equipment integrations at present with these processes which permit data to flow from equipment to a manufacturing execution system (MES).
As the volume and complexity of products and processes increase, manufacturers relying primarily on this level of automation begin looking for ways to reduce manual processes, go “paperless”, increase traceability, and gain visibility into data regarding processes and the overall state of production. Manufacturers often replace or supplement in-house or homegrown systems with commercial software solutions which are usually more suitable to their needs at this stage. If a formal MES isn’t already in place, beginning the process of selecting and then implementing an MES system becomes crucial to enable both short and long-term growth.
Passive-tracking provides a path to high automation in a two-phase process.
During the initiation phase, equipment operators access view work instructions, data collection plans, recipes, and equipment parameters from the MES. Then, they will load and configure the equipment manually. This phase serves to inform the development of user-interfaces and automation to ensure a consistent and positive user-experience.
- Investigate the production process and standardize transactions and scenarios where possible
- Configure the production process in an electronic system, such as an MES
- Conduct a thorough assessment of the capabilities of each equipment type
The automation phase is focused on implementation of automation solutions based on the outcomes of the initiation phase.
- Integrate the equipment using an equipment integration and automation solution
- Automate the equipment, where possible, using bi-directional communication ensuring that the recipe, data collection and run-time parameters are passed to the equipment automatically
- Integrate the other manufacturing systems (statistical process control systems, adaptive control systems, etc.)
- Integrate and automate material handling systems
Automated Production Processes
Automated production processes are characterized by the absence of human interaction with the process. A process considered to be automated if is executed from start to finish with human interaction limited to fault and failure handling. The presence of automated processes within a production environment typically indicates that some production systems have been integrated, some equipment is automated, data regarding processes is collected automatically and is available to integrated systems; automated material tracking and, perhaps, some automated transport and handling capabilities are in place.
Moving toward high automation is achievable and, in some cases, advised. Careful planning, due diligence, and organizational awareness which includes input from manufacturing, operations, engineering, and finance will establish the objectives and measures of successful manufacturing automation projects.
A manufacturing environment is considered to be highly automated when most production processes are automated and the workflows are system-driven with supervision from shop floor personnel. As there are usually various levels of automation present within the same production environment, manufacturers continue to pursue high-value automation initiatives in more than one area and are often engaged in, or seeking opportunities related to:
- automating failure, fault, and exception handling by leveraging the power of advanced manufacturing intelligence
- evaluating legacy equipment and systems, continuing to weigh options between the benefits of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions to enable integration of legacy equipment and systems into their IT infrastructure versus the purchase of new equipment
- automating material handling
While achieving higher levels of automation involves systematically removing human activities from production processes, the role of humans in manufacturing is still critical in that the complex problem-solving capabilities of the human brain are far superior to that which can be achieved with software and automation.
Human activities which are replaced by automation solutions will necessitate the transition of workers to highly sophisticated tasks which are more consistent with the power of the human brain – the exact type of work that is very difficult to automate. Humans are well-suited to roles where they can apply their subject matter expertise to complex problem-solving tasks. These types of tasks generally involve the evaluation of multi-variate, real-time situations and synthesis of incomplete information. This innately human process is necessary to inform decision-making, evaluate of outcomes, and make adjustments based on situational results.
Considerations for High-Automation Manufacturing
Success in digital transformation initiatives is most often found when the automation effort is focused toward high-value processes, with a coherent strategy to balance the investment in automation with the costs of human intervention to correct an errant process.
It is often unfeasible from a cost perspective to pursue high levels of automation for every possible scenario on the manufacturing floor. For that reason, there should be considerable due-diligence effort up front to evaluate if the manufacturing process or scenario would lend itself to full automation and that the costs associated with doing so will be offset by earnings. As a point of reference, the manufacturers we work with typically expect to see a positive return on their automation investment within 24 months.
Due-diligence can be complicated and involves the evaluation of costs and earnings through the assessment of how this work is done today, versus the costs and earnings attributed to having the work done by automation in the future. Considerations in the “earnings” category include things such as reduced scrap, labor, and planning cycles as well as increased throughput, quality, yield, and utilization. Costs include software, hardware, integration, and maintenance expenses – both, in the immediate term, to fulfill the needs of the project and, in the long term, to enable continuity and support future growth. Also keep in mind, any high-automation manufacturing solution will certainly elevate the requirements for human problem-solving due to the complexities associated with sophisticated automation systems. How will you prepare current shop floor personnel for success with this new and different type of work?
The good news is that manufacturing automation is a continuum, and each step in the process will bring rewards in terms of increased yield and reduced errors. High-automation manufacturing is a goal – not a destination, as the costs to achieve a truly “lights out” factory often are not supported by the benefits. The incremental steps required to move from manual processes to higher levels of manufacturing automation will provide manufacturing teams the opportunity to assess and fine-tune the production processes as they work toward the established project goals and objectives. In summary, there is no reason to delay the journey to assess, and incrementally automate, your production environment.