The term industrial automation refers to a range of tools and actions designed to make production lines and logistics as autonomous, linear and streamlined as possible, reducing operator workload through the use of smart automatic machinery integrated with an advanced IT system. Therefore, automation encompasses various functions which can, and should be, suitably tailored to the specific features and requirements of each production context.
The difference between automation and mechanisation lies primarily in the need for human supervision of machinery at work. The first instances of automation were essentially mechanical systems without electronic control devices (e.g., the looms of the first industrial revolution or steam engines).
Automation represents the evolution of mechanisation. In fact, it has made it possible to eliminate the need for human labour for heavy, tiring tasks and enabled introduction of other important improvements, such as automatic adjustment of systems and machinery, alongside greater control of the entire production process and predictive technology.
Over time, automation has driven continuous progress, initially with the introduction of anthropomorphic robots and later with cutting-edge AGV and cobot technology. Initially, operators and robots worked separately, with the robot often completely replacing the work of human personnel. In a subsequent phase (Industry 4.0), these systems and processes have been integrated to achieve optimised collaboration between machines and operators.
Industrial automation can be defined as “hard” or “flexible”, depending on the use of pre-set or sequential production processes.
Specifically, “hard” automation involves process, assembly and checking activities with a fixed sequence of actions and repetitive and high-frequency tasks.
“Flexible automation”, on the other hand, involves management of materials, products and logistics aspects, with automatic machines that move independently around the work area.
With hard automation, actions can be carried out by a single machine or by a processing station with multiple devices equipped with software-managed feeding systems. This can include various types of industrial machinery, previously programmed for use of a single repetitive task.
Flexible automation involves management of products and services. It can be performed by electric shuttles, AGVs, cobots designed to work alongside operators, RFID labels that uniquely identify incoming goods, telephone switchboards integrated with ERP systems that perform video monitoring of arriving trucks, voice picking and pallet stacker cranes.
When different types of production are simultaneously automatically managed, it is considered a flexible manufacturing system, with each machine able to perform tasks for various parts in real time.
The benefits of industrial automation are countless. First of all, it enables increased production speed and volume whilst optimising resources. This is possible through IIOT – Industrial Internet of Things monitoring, i.e., networking of a series of devices enabling them to communicate with one another and share data. The IIOT includes control of performance and status of equipment, use of human resources and the production cycle, as well as safety of operators and end-customers.
Therefore, industrial automation is capable of significantly improving production processes and optimised forecasting of demand, whilst also making a significant contribution to reducing errors and costs and implementing operational flexibility.
An extremely effective feature, for example, is predictive maintenance. Data from sensors fitted on machinery and production lines is transmitted in real time to special software that anticipates potential breakdowns.
Finally, industrial automation cuts excess production and labour, while reducing any machinery downtime and IT data congestion, thus increasing company reliability and the quality of products or services.
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