Robin Kallsen, Marketing Content Specialist, Omron
Flexibility is the defining factor of today’s manufacturing world. How can companies build exactly what consumers are looking for – and change course immediately in response to changing consumer needs – without sacrificing throughput and quality?
Despite the obvious benefits, flexibility can hamper throughput, predictive maintenance and more. Nonetheless, industrial automation technology is keeping pace with these challenges so that manufacturers can implement flexible lines without being overwhelmed by complexity.
Designing for easy reconfiguration
Flexibility can reduce throughput when compared with single-product lines. Changeovers from product to product always slow production down to some extent. The key is to design a system that maximizes the reuse of its components and keeps changeover time as short as possible.
Using robotics is one excellent way to boost flexibility. Robots are reusable, re-deployable assets that can change their programs on the fly, and collaborative robots in particular make it easy to keep flexible lines moving because they are and simple to train on new tasks.
Embracing modularity with a fully integrated software solution
The programming software that ties the system together can also be designed to simplify product changeovers. Software platforms that allow machine designers to do all of the programming in a single environment, including motion control, sensor control and robotics, enhance flexibility by facilitating code reuse.
A fully integrated software platform makes it much easier to build modular systems, which are a cornerstone of flexibility. In modular design, OEMs and machine builders want to ensure that manufacturing machinery can be easily integrated, so they create smaller pieces that fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
To ensure connectivity between individual pieces of equipment, an all-in-one software solution checks the addressing of all the devices and ensures that everything is connected. Every feature on every device is mapped out for the end user trying to program the equipment.
A good software platform contains multiple function blocks to help manufacturers get new variations of their systems up and running more quickly. As a complete software package that ties all the hardware pieces together, it saves customers and field engineers significant amounts of time in designing, maintaining and troubleshooting flexible production lines.
Connecting the dots with mobile robots
The constant reconfiguring of modular systems means that the production flow changes constantly, and it becomes extremely unwieldy to use conveyors. By nature, conveyors are inflexible and new configurations can be expensive and time-consuming. Conveyors can also block traffic throughout the plant if they aren’t planned out with extreme care and detail.
Fortunately, conveyors aren’t the only option. Self-navigating mobile robots provide a much more flexible means for connecting parts of the line without obstructing traffic throughout the plant. They can move resources through challenging environments, including confined passageways and peopled locations.
Automating traceability to locate parts, products and equipment more quickly
Since things are constantly moving around in a flexible manufacturing system, it can be difficult to keep track of things manually. Due to high competition, in order to maintain throughput and quality, it must be easy to locate finished products and works-in-progress.
Manufacturers need to improve the visibility of their operations with fully automated traceability systems. Flexibility has the potential to increase the occurrence of mistakes if key tasks are performed manually, but if traceability is fully automated, dozens of different products can be run on the same line with a negligible error rate.
To create a robust, real-time traceability system, technologies that improve data flow are very important. Controllers with SQL functionality, for example, enhance traceability by allowing low-level machines to communicate location and status information to higher-level computers. Code readers are also a must.
Overcoming predictive maintenance challenges with AI
Flexible manufacturing systems are complex and tightly integrated, and this can make it difficult to predict when a particular piece of equipment will falter. Typically, a combination of several indicators correlates with a potential problem.
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Figure 2. Omron’s AI controller collects and analyzes machine data to determine what constitutes normal and abnormal machine behavior, and can programmatically change operation accordingly, which helps manufacturers reduce downtime while enjoying the benefits of flexible manufacturing.
The sheer number of variables involved makes it exceedingly difficult to determine how each factor relates to a potential problem. This is where the power of machine learning can save the day.
Controllers with built-in artificial intelligence algorithms can collect and analyze data within the machines, discovering what constitutes normal behavior. When the data indicates the machine has done something abnormal, the controller can programmatically change operation to help save the product or equipment.
Flexible manufacturing is often necessary for keeping up with the demands of today’s consumer, but it comes with challenges. Throughput, predictive maintenance and other key measures of success can suffer if flexible production lines are not designed intelligently.
Figure 3. Omron’s TM series robots help companies produce a high mix and low volume of products, as well as harness the true potential of human resources.
Manufacturers can employ several strategies to overcome these challenges, such as designing for reusability and modularity, employing mobile robots, automating traceability and using AI to untangle complex predictive maintenance needs. These strategies help minimize downtime and keep operations running smoothly when production needs change.
Omron Automation Americas