Industry Market Trends

The Subtle Genius Behind Large-Scale Automation

Feb 18, 2014

Manufacturing tends to remain stable until a singular event or invention appears. This disruptive event creates a paradigm shift, eventually altering the way in which manufacturing is done worldwide. The opening of true global markets was one event that increased the importance of manufacturing competitiveness. It became important not to just vie for market space with local competition but to compete with and outperform manufacturing from other countries and continents.

The close of the 20th century saw manufacturing shift from the heavy influences of the Industrial Revolution to the modern-day information revolution. Machine tools became automated, with the development of onboard computers, sensors, and feedback systems. Now almost every production-floor machine tool has one or more computers or sensors that can be used to monitor and alter the manufacturing processes under its control. This technology has brought us into the world of manufacturing automation.

Automation continues to evolve into the 21st century with the addition of faster PCs, increased numbers of improved sensors, and more networking communication protocols. However, the paradigm of automation has begun to stabilize. The current business and technology trend of discrete-part manufacturing has begun to require the use of large-scale and flexible automation.

This is the result of a shift of production from the global economy of scale to what is more realistically called an economy of scope. This new environment is beginning to turn away from the symbols of 20th-century mass production, such as the focus on conveyor belts and assembly lines producing enormous quantities of the same product. Today, manufacturing plants must still produce enormous quantities of goods and services; however, they must also be able to create a broad range of customized goods and services along the same line. This must be done with an emphasis, as well, on meeting time constraints while keeping prices competitive.

Automation Changes the Game

It is through the subtle flexibility of large-scale automation that allows the economy of scope to excel against the economy of scale. Technologies are being developed to allow a variety of parts to be produced through a single system or by a single machine. It is through these changes in large-scale automation that will move a company from the economy of scale into the economy of scope.

A manufacturing company's exposure in many industrial sectors may give it a competitive advantage, but with knowledge of each industrial sector comes a new set of routes to be explored in automating its manufacturing process. Within the old manufacturing environment, every sector required a unique process or technology. This technology was more than likely isolated from the other sectors. However, within today's new manufacturing environment, each technology can be called upon to assist seemingly disconnected and independent sectors. The subtlety of how these technologies are blended results in the elegant solution that will propel a company ahead of its competition.

The most recognizable symbol of modern automation is the factory-floor robot. Robots come in many forms, shapes, and sizes. Robots can be programmed to do a wide range of tasks, from simple to complex.

This robotic paint/spray machine automatically heats and decorates parts and then dries the paint prior to returning them to the operator. The entire process is completed in eight to 15 seconds for two parts. Credit: Arnold Machine

The manufacturing robot has been with us almost throughout the entire 20th century, in one form or another. Up until the 1990s, robots were simple machines that would mostly repeat a single task. But increasing capabilities in computing, sensing, and motion control have brought to fore robots that can do multiple complex tasks. Some can even decide which tasks to do and in which order, based upon live-floor stimuli.

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Modern robots not only load and unload parts. Many of them laser, weld, cut, bond, sense, measure, inspect, etc... Robots like these have moved seamlessly from the economy of scale and enabled the economy of scope, as they now can efficiently and reliably choose what components are placed where based upon an array of uploaded instructions.

Flexible Systems Enable Large-Scale Automation

Large-scale automation comes from combining robots and machine tools into a flexible system. And designing large-scale automation creates more efficient and elegant manufacturing processes. These processes do not just complete one single task but can perform various tasks within the same setup, with a focus on greater customization for what best fits the customer.

One recently designed spraying system for the automotive industry was made with enough flexibility to be ideal also for spraying a different product for a manufacturer of oil-field components. This machine utilizes advanced systems and robust designs to provide simple, consistent operations and results over a wide range of materials. It was specifically designed to cover as wide a scope of industries as possible, spraying both water- and solvent-based materials, such as adhesives and adhesive primers.

Machine tools must now be designed for automation and flexibility to be profitable over a large range of production volumes. They must also have high speed, greater accuracy, repeatability, and configurability. This way, a single machine tool will have the highest resource utilization and maintain a high level of responsiveness to any change in the desired product. It is within these system design parameters that we find the subtle genius behind large-scale automation.

Top photo credit: Arnold Machine Inc.

Zach Arnold is president of Arnold Machine Inc., a provider of automation systems and manufacturing services based in Tiffin, Ohio. Arnold Machine serves the automotive, appliance, and heavy-equipment industries with custom sheet metal fabrication, precision CNC machining, and engineering services. It builds automation equipment that includes spray machines, conveyor systems, and pick-and-place machinery. For more, visit