Collaborative Automation…It’s Not Just for Robots

Guest Contributor: Tom Rosenberg, Balluff

Manufacturing is made up of hundreds of discrete operations. Some are repetitive, while others are more diverse. Repetitive tasks are ideal for automation while diverse tasks require more flexibility. And while automation can be extremely flexible, that comes with a high initial investment costs and significant deployment time. The alternative? People!

Humans have the unrivaled ability to adapt to a diverse and flexible manufacturing environment. They can be productive relatively quickly with proper guidance without high initial cost investments.

But as we all know, “to err is human” and this is one of the biggest issues with manual operations. People need a little guidance from time to time. Collaboration is not just for robots; It’s for complete automation systems as well.

Collaborative automation is most important at the point-of-use, where humans are performing critical operations. Some of those common operations include:

  • Manual assembly for low volume or highly flexible operations
  • Delivery of raw materials to the point-of-use
  • Kit assembly for down-stream operation
  • Machine setup and change-over
  • Machine maintenance and calibration

All of these functions can be done error-free and with little training by simply guiding people within their current work envelope, also referred to as their point-of-use. This type of a lean function provides hands-free guidance in the form of indication devices connected directly to your automation system allowing workers to stay focused on the task at hand instead of looking elsewhere for instructions.

With the technology of IO-Link, smart indication devices can now show much more information to all the people involved in specific manufacturing tasks. Automation has an immediate and direct connection to the people that are so vital.

For example, in a manually-fed weld-cell, the smart indicators are capable of not only signaling that the part is loaded correctly, but also whether the part is out of alignment (shown here by the red indicator) or that something wrong with one of the automation components such as a stuck pneumatic clamp.

Figure 1A manually-fed weld-cell with smart indicators is capable of not only signaling that the part is loaded correctly, but also if the part is out of alignment (shown by the red indicator) or that there is something wrong with one of the automation components such as a stuck pneumatic clamp.

Even better, with IIoT technology, trends can be analyzed to determine if the fixture/tool could be optimized for production or to identify common failure points. This all leads to tighter collaboration with operations, maintenance personnel and production supervisors.

A traditional kitting station, sometimes referred to as a supermarket, is another ideal application for smart indicators. Not only can they guide a single operator to the intended part to pull, they can guide multiple operators at the same time.  Also, smart indicators can inform of incorrect pulls, potential bin options (a physically closure bin), directional information, and inventory levels. And again, with IIoT technology, trends can be analyzed to determine proper layout, individual personnel performance and system throughput. The automation system collaborates with operations, forklift drivers and production supervisors.

Regal_v06_01_V3A traditional kitting station, sometimes referred to as a supermarket, with smart indicators to guide operators to the intended part to pull.

So, take a look and see what a collaborative automation system utilizing smart indicators can do for your manual operations. You might be surprised.

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