Industry Market Trends

Solutions for Modern Factory Automation

Mar 12, 2014

From the production floor to the loading dock to the engineering and planning office, there is a number of innovative tools available to the modern factory that can ramp up efficiency. In many cases, these same tools also raise worker safety.

For many manufacturers, the labor, inventory, and energy costs of factory systems can be very significant. But gone are the clunky, cumbersome relay logic controllers and proprietary computer systems, replaced by products designed for usability and compatibility and using off-the-shelf networking components. Computer numerical control (CNC) machinery, computer-aided design (CAD) storage systems, and manufacturing resource planning (MRP) software can run on PCs using standard Wi-Fi networks.

This is enabling equipment and controls in the modern factory to be more interconnected than ever, with machinery, communication systems, and planning software all becoming more advanced. As their use in the market increases, these products are also becoming more affordable. And with this comes opportunities for automation everywhere around the plant.

A New Breed of Robots for Low-Volume, High-Mix Plants

Automation has become the answer to high labor costs that hamper domestic manufacturers' ability to compete with offshore production. By strategically using automation, manufacturers are able to make products faster with less labor and thus decrease piece costs. A completely automated, or "lights out," manufacturing system can carry production without any human interference.

Cartesian coordinate robots, or gantry robots, handling multi-axis movements and accommodating a wide array of payloads, are in widespread use in automation applications, for processes from pick-and-place to welding, and are the most commonly used type of robot for lights-out manufacturing.

Automation is only one piece of the puzzle in lights-out manufacturing. To ensure that all processes stay within specified parameters, reliable data recording and monitoring systems that provide real-time feedback must be in place. These systems are capable of adjusting or shutting down production should a process become nonconforming.

Since lights-out manufacturing is routinely used in long machining cycles that produce precision parts from expensive alloys, real-time monitoring is essential to prevent costly scrap and down time. Modern monitoring and control systems are designed to easily integrate into an existing manufacturing system with minimal effort.

For factories with a high-mix, low-volume product base, robotics can still be applicable. In contrast to gantry robots, which are traditionally designed to operate in high-volume production environments without human interaction, there are now robots on the market that are specifically designed to work alongside human operators.

These robots, such as Rethink Robotics' "Baxter" humanoid robot (pictured), are designed to detect human movements and therefore safe to use without safety cages. Such robots can be taught to pack or move items through intuitive operator interfaces that do not require prior programming knowledge in users. In fact, setting up this type of robot is more akin to training a new operator than programming electronic equipment. Industrial equipment designers continue to follow the lead of the consumer electronics industry in creating products that are highly intuitive to the average user.

Transforming the Loading Dock for Safety, Efficiency

In addition to the production floor, there are numerous opportunities for incorporating lean manufacturing principles into shipping, distribution, and production planning. The loading dock is an often overlooked place to increase efficiency and safety.

An electric hydraulic dock leveler. Credit: A-Z Factory Supply An electric hydraulic dock leveler. Credit: A-Z Factory Supply

Hydraulic dock levelers offer several advantages over their mechanical or pneumatic counterparts. Hydraulic cylinders are equipped with velocity fuses that prevent freefall of the leveler should a truck unexpectedly leave the bay.

The reliability of safety legs in mechanical leveling systems can be inconsistent depending on their age, level of maintenance, and speed of the truck's departure. Although hydraulic levelers can have higher upfront costs and do require an electricity source, the improvements in operator safety and loading times can offset these costs.

An experienced industrial equipment supplier can assist in determining which equipment is best suited for a given facility and throughput volume. Additional innovative dock equipment includes improved dock seals that maintain temperatures in the facility during loading; guidance systems that expedite the docking and minimize collisions; and communication systems that facilitate clear instructions from dock personnel to truck drivers.

Material Handling Deserves Another Look for Efficiencies

Material handling equipment is often a challenging decision-making area for plant management. Calculating material-handling efficiencies is more complex and subjective than clocking a machining cycle time, so the costs associated with material handling is more difficult to accurately determine. However, taking a hard look at the material-handling process can often present significant cost saving opportunities. Making due with the wrong equipment can increase handling time and the risk of injury.

Specialized trucks such as drum or cylinder caddies are designed to make transport easier and safer. Similarly, installing pallet flow racks for pallets of the same material or putting in place custom shelving for small parts can save space and reduce part-retrieval times. Having proper handling and storage systems in place ensures plant personnel have the tools to safely and efficiently do their jobs.

MRP Systems Take the Guesswork Out of Planning

Alongside the physical products designed to increase quality and efficiency, MRP software systems continue to transform the modern factory. The forecasting, purchasing, production planning, and distribution tasks that used to require a room full of people to analyze and coordinate can now be done automatically on a PC.

There is a variety of MRP systems on the market designed for v arious types of manufacturers, including original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), high-volume contract manufacturers, and even job shops. These software suites track material usage, labor costs, floor capacity, and orders, among other parameters. Most software packages are highly customizable and can be tailored to fit any size and type of facility.

There a number of innovative tools available to the modern factory that can ramp up efficiency and safety. By taking a look at the individual aspects of the manufacturing process, such as receiving and distribution, production, and planning, a plethora of opportunities for improvement can be found.

A wide array of hardware, equipment, and software is available to help manufacturers meet their efficiency goals. Today's factories are safer and more efficient than ever thanks to a mutual dedication to innovation by factory owners and equipment suppliers. Having the right tools in place is essential to meeting factory goals and staying competitive.

Top photo credit: Rethink Robotics

Henry Bolden is president of A-Z Factory Supply, a distributor of industrial supplies based in Schiller Park, Ill. A-Z Factory Supply carries over 180,000 products from 650 major brands, including docking equipment, material-handling equipment, storage and shelving, cutting tools and cutting fluids, safety equipment, industrial aerosols, and hose clamps. For more, visit