Levels of factory automation

By Mark Diorio

Factory automation continues to be a much-debated subject in assembly factories. While advertising campaigns and marketing efforts would have us believe that full automation is a necessity or that only the very best will produce the very best, many factories do quite well by using a minimum level of automation. For every fully automated line in production today, I would estimate that there are at least ten that are not and they are doing just as well as the automated lines – if not better.

Having a fully automated system is not a guarantee for success; success still comes down to people (the very element that full-scale automation is trying to erase). But people do need to have good tools to do their jobs well, so it is appropriate to review the various levels of automation available today.

Process Automation

Process automation is the information housekeeping and material processing of a single assembly step. It allows for the ability to store and recall product-specific parameters that control how a piece of equipment will interact with a product being manufactured. This generally is achieved by defining motion controls. This level of automation is a requirement for manufacturing a high quality product around the clock. It is a level of automation that we largely take for granted, as almost any piece of equipment used in high-volume manufacturing today can repetitively perform its function with very little human interaction.

Communication Automation

Communication automation is the exchange of information between the shop floor and the rest of the organization.

Depending on the factory's infrastructure, the following items are supported:

  • The shop floor stores process parameters off-line and exchanges them both within the factory and remotely to other factory sites.
  • Factory staff monitors, schedules and routes work-in-process in accordance with factory ability and market needs.
  • Suppliers and factory buyers respond to material resource planning needs.
  • Engineering studies yield-enhancement and responds to SPC trends.

Material Handling Automation

The facilitation of material transfers between different assembly operations or process steps is material handling automation. Material is presented to the various assembly operations in a standard carrier configuration; it is then transferred or routed to subsequent operations or process steps.

Material handling automation may couple as few as two process steps together (such as mark and test) or many steps that are necessary to complete the entire packaging process. By doing this, the factory typically profits from labor savings while realizing reductions in handling-related losses. There are a myriad of automation providers available, from assembly equipment makers that provide in-line solutions to system integrators that can provide essentially the same functions and, in some cases, better results. This level of automation is the most difficult to justify, especially if you are already running at peak efficiencies and producing to a greater than 99.5-percent yield.

Which Level Is Right for You?

Bottom line – does an automated assembly line bring more customers and provide higher margins? One U.S.-based assembly factory recently launched all three levels of automation, and it is now out of business. In comparison, there are factories with no more than two levels of automation that are assembly leaders. There are even some companies with only the first level of automation that are doing admirably.

Considering that automation goes beyond labor savings (and realizing that higher yields can be obtained, equipment utilization can be increased and cycle times reduced), automation is a well-justified practice. However, in practice, deciding on automation levels comes down to what is right for you and your company. Although you may find worth in automation, the ultimate question is if your customer will. At the end of the day, they are going to ask about quality criteria, the parts they need, how fast you can make them and the price. And your boss (or shareholder) is going to ask, “How much money did we make today?”


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MARK DiORIO, chief executive officer, can be contacted at MTBSolutions Inc., 1630 Oakland Road, Suite A102, San Jose, CA 95131-2450; 408-441-2173; Fax: 408-441-9700; E-mail: [email protected].


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