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Industrial Automation: What the Future Holds

Jan 15, 2019

Industrial automation in manufacturing companies entails the use of intelligent machinery in manufacturing plants. Industrial automation systems ensure that processes are completed within the shortest span of time and with minimal human intervention. This requires different control systems that facilitate the operating equipment to execute allotted tasks at the right speed, precision, and endurance on their own. Following the technological advancements in the last couple of decades, small businesses can now afford to adopt industrial automation systems and improve their operational efficiency. Some of the key applications of industrial automation include:

  • Quality control and inspection
  • Food and beverage processing
  • Planning and decision making
  • Packaging and material handling
  • Metal fabrication; machining, welding, cutting, and cladding

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Benefits of industrial automation

Industrial automation enables manufacturing companies to achieve a rapid increase in productivity by exploiting the potential of advanced industrial automation technologies. Some of the benefits derived from automating manufacturing processes include:

Dramatic increase in output

Manufacturers can hire a huge workforce and have them work for long hours to increase production levels. Even so, the manufacturing plant still has to be closed for maintenance and repairs, and on holidays. This reduces the chances of having a 100% production up time. Industrial IoT automation helps to attain close to 100% up time round the clock, consequently resulting in a dramatic increase in production levels. IIoT based predictive maintenance capability further prepares companies to deal with breakdowns in a much better way and reduce operational downtime. Therefore, industrial automation proves to be highly useful and efficient in situations where a high degree of accuracy is needed, the work is physically demanding or takes place within dangerous environments.

Low production costs

Employing robots is indeed cheaper than employing manual labor. Apart from the initial cost of setting up the industrial automation system, the only other costs incurred are for energy, maintenance, and repairs. This results in big savings and ROI when compared to annual salaries that have to be paid for a manual workforce. Industrial automation provides more production with fewer workers. Only a handful of employees are required to monitor and operate machinery rather than a floor full of laborers. Moreover, lower production costs and higher production rates translate to more affordable goods for consumers.

Improved environment for employees

Many industrial processes use strong chemicals and/or heavy electrical voltage to manufacture goods, creating a risky environment for the workforce. The safety of workers and operators can be a huge concern in such cases. In some cases, companies have to provide large financial compensation in the event of work-related accidents and hazards. Industrial automation systems make the production line a safe working environment. Robots handle all hazardous work with ease.

Unprecedented control over product quality

Unlike humans automated devices and robots don’t experience fatigue.  Getting bored or losing work focus is out of question and naturally, they don’t make many errors. Industrial automation facilities manufacturing companies in reducing errors and enhancing the quality standards. Industrial automation systems are more precise than human workers and cut out the factor of human error. This not only results in a higher quality product, but it also delivers a more consistent final product.

More opportunities for customization

There is a rising demand for personalized and customized products in the market. Therefore, manufacturers need to be able to meet these demands without losing money while adhering to strict quality and safety standards. Manufactures to increase flexibility in production with smart factories. Increasing industrial automation through the use of sensors and configurable robots on the assembly line aids in mass production of items built to individual customer orders and specifications. While in the automotive industry, buyers have long been able to build their new car on-line and choose from a variety of options to suit their style and taste, this has not been the case in other sectors. In sectors including consumer electronics products have been traditionally produced in high volumes to the same specification. Smart factories have the ability to change this.

Development of new products

Against the backdrop of industrial automation, manufacturers are continually exploring ways to create new revenue streams through the development and manufacture of an expansive range of new products and systems. Industrial automation will trigger the manufacture and development of a wide range of new electronic systems and products.

Although most manufacturing industrial automation concepts are yet to be implemented fully, there has been remarkable progress since the 1980s. High precision and repetitive tasks in big industries such as car assembly plants have been completely taken over by industrial robots.

Types of industrial automation

There are primarily three types of industrial automation:

Rigid or hard automation

Rigid or hard automation systems are special equipment that are used to streamline specific processes. Hard automation is one of the key types of industrial automation wherein it is hardly possible to facilitate the modifications in product design. Industries which have to produce stable and sustainable product designs for a long period of resort to such types of industrial automation.

Programmable automation

Products are produced in batches in this type of industrial automation. Reprogramming the production system is essential in order to get a new batch of products with different specifications. Programmable automated devices are designed in such a way that they facilitate product changeover. However, the process to reprogram a production machine often proves to be time-consuming.

Flexible automation

Flexible automation is a more sophisticated and refined form of programmable automation. Unlike programmable automation, flexible automation (often referred to as soft automation) allows to automatically and quickly changeover the equipment. Without wasting much time, a mixture of different products can be produced consistently.

Advancement in industrial automation in manufacturing companies means that future factories will be quite efficient in the utilization of raw materials, human resources and, energy.

Top 5 disruptive trends in industrial automation

In the last two decades, industrial automation technology has evolved massively, thereby transforming the nature of operations in industrial and manufacturing companies. Advancements in industrial automation technology are creating opportunities for manufacturers around the world. Here are five big trends in industrial automation that are likely to have a significant impact in the future:

Improved industrial cybersecurity

Over the past decade, the rise in cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure has resulted in cybersecurity becoming a key concern amongst the users and vendors of industrial automation systems. Fortunately, advances in industrial cybersecurity management is highly useful to address the crucial requirements of industrial automation applications, equipment, and plants as these relate to stringent constraints on network communications and system updates. A very effective hybrid approach can be taken by the advanced industrial cybersecurity solutions that are available today. This includes both behavior-based anomaly detection that helps to identify would-be cyber threats using conventional cybersecurity approaches, and rules-based analysis which facilitates manufacturers to leverage deep inspection and uncover malware cyberattacks on the network.

Smart industrial robots

The increasing presence of intelligent industrial robotics on factory floors is a win for industry 4.0. Although robots have been in use for decades in manufacturing companies, the constant development of robotic technologies has undoubtedly broadened the potential applications for smart industrial robots. Today, robots that are driven by cutting-edge vision systems and software can be programmed to perform a range of tasks, which fits in neatly with the demand for flexible manufacturing.

Decentralized parts manufacturing

Decentralized manufacturing may be one impending change that helps manufacturing companies handle the demand for parts orders. Decentralized manufacturing employs a network of geographically dispersed facilities that are coordinated with the help of information technology. Using distributed manufacturing platforms, parts orders, especially for making medium- or small-run items like 3D printed parts, can be fulfilled at scale. As mass-customization takes off, there could be increased reliance on a decentralized network of parts suppliers.

Blockchain for resource tracking

ERP software tracks resource allocation from raw material procurement to CRM. Yet a manufacturing business can have so many disparate ERP systems and siloed data that can itself become a tangled mess of cobbled-together software. Many large industrial manufacturers even have as many as 100 different ERP systems. Blockchain and distributed ledger technology projects aim to unite data from a company’s various processes and stakeholders into a universal data structure. Many corporate giants are piloting blockchain projects, aiming to reduce the complexity and disparities of their siloed databases.

Virtualization in industrial automation

In traditional industrial automation systems, application software, operating systems, and physical hardware are tightly coupled. On the flip side, virtualization breaks this link and provides the capability to run multiple operating systems and their associated applications on the same physical hardware. This can be achieved by executing software in individual partitions, also known as virtual machines. When multiple operation servers are used into a single hardware platform, overall efficiency can be improved. This consequently results in a dip in operating expense, energy consumption, integration, and maintenance effort. Industrial automation companies can adopt virtualization as it offers an array of benefits and opportunities that clearly increase its importance and usage. Scalability and the capability to easily incorporate future needs without heavy additional hardware costs are some of the major benefits of virtualization.

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The future of industrial automation

Industrial automation has become a popular process in manufacturing companies, but with advances in AI and remote communication, this practice is likely to explode in the coming years. It is currently a viable scenario to have an entire factory run by just a couple of people with the rest of the operation performed by automated machines and robots. However, in reality, even the most fine-tuned machine needs human intervention and correction to recognize and prevent manufacturing failures. Several calculations and processes that human minds find complex can happen instantaneously for an industrial automation system. While many people believe this is going to mean people will be replaced, it can be hoped that it simply means they are going to move into new and more critical roles.

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