Flexible Automation vs. Fixed Automation: What’s the Difference?

The implementation of automation is an important development in the manufacturing sphere. However, there’s been a shift in how it’s done – from the fixed automation commonly employed in the past to newer, more flexible methods. Automation has moved from automating production to concentrating more on quality control, focusing on monitoring and tracking goods coming off production lines. For manufacturers looking to make their operations more efficient by introducing automated processes, it’s important to understand the differences between fixed automation and flexible automation.

What’s Fixed Automation?

Sometimes called “hard automation,” fixed automation involves a preset system that mechanizes all or most manufacturing processes to fabricate a particular product. It combines sequential production steps, utilizing machinery and tooling configured for mass production. A fixed automation system cannot be easily changed, and it’s this difficulty in altering these systems, even to produce slightly different products, that leads to its description as “fixed.” Automation in fixed systems works to integrate and coordinate multiple steps toward the production of a single item.

Examples of fixed automation include: 

  • Automatic machinery engaged in product assembly
  • Automating painting and other coating processes
  • Chemical processing automation
  • Conveying systems for mechanically transporting bulk and other materials
  • Transfer lines for machining components
  • Web handling and converting systems for processes like sealing, printing, metalizing, and coating

Fixed automation initially requires a substantial investment in designing and engineering all the equipment within a system. However, the cost per piece tends to decrease the longer the system remains in operation as these systems tend to be used to produce in volume. When combined into a system, this machinery cannot easily be reconfigured to produce other products, though this inflexibility in design makes it useful for mass production. The high setup costs for fixed automation make these systems economic only when manufacturing at scale.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Fixed Automation

Systems that utilize fixed automation have their advantages and disadvantages. An example of a system based on fixed automation is a robot designed to conduct a single task over and over or a sequence of preprogrammed tasks. Additionally, the automated machinery used in these systems is hard-wired, with mechanical implements and wiring used to control production. Once installed, fixed automation offers a low cost per unit, making it ideal for manufacturers who want to produce a single product on a grand scale. Yet its advantage is also a drawback, as fixed automation cannot be easily reconfigured to produce various products. For manufacturers looking for more flexibility in their fabrication processes, flexible automation often is the better choice.

What’s Flexible Automation?

Flexibility makes a business more agile and better adapted to changing economic conditions. This is no less true in manufacturing, with producers looking at ways to make their operations more flexible. Automation can deliver solutions that help companies produce different types or variable quantities of a product. Equipment can be designed instead for flexible automation, featuring sophisticated computerized technology capable of being configured or programmed to fabricate multiple types of goods simultaneously. It also allows manufacturers to quickly vary production levels to turn out larger or smaller amounts at moderate production runs.

Examples of flexible automation include: 

  • Auto manufacturers customize engine size, paint color, and other vehicle features
  • Boat builders automate welding, drilling, and coating processes
  • Fabricators of electronics assembling varied and updated circuit boards
  • Food processing companies altering automated processes to fluctuations in demand or changes in recipes
  • Medical device producers test and sort their products
  • Toymakers produce multiple variations of a product through automated grouping and packaging

Unlike fixed automation, flexible automation is costlier, requiring a custom-engineered system that continuously produces a mixture of products, albeit at lower throughputs. For manufacturers in industries where product design changes rapidly, or throughput can vary significantly, flexible automation allows producers to limit downtime due to changeovers between consignments. Flexible automation depends much more on computers and other programmable equipment, focusing on software rather than hardware.  

Advantages & Disadvantages of Flexible Automation

The basis of flexible automation lies in its programmability. Through the use of robotic devices, manufacturers can program their equipment to perform a variety of assignments. For example, this comprehensive modality allows toymakers to make plastic pieces for a board game and components for a toy car the next day. Alternatively, it could allow a boat manufacturer to shift production from producing superyachts to cargo ships should market conditions change, favoring production of the latter.

Such agility can help businesses of all types adapt and evolve, preventing businesses from going under. Already, we’re seeing this with larger, established automakers in the electric vehicle (EV) market, who are shifting production away from vehicles with internal combustion engines toward EVs to better compete in this market. However, flexible automation comes with a cost, like anything in the industry.

It’s more expensive to make flexible manufacturing systems rather than fixed ones. Automation should offer manufacturers a relatively quick return on investment, and startups must weigh the costs of employing flexible automation against its benefits. Additionally, making automated systems more flexible increases the expense of the final product, which is why introducing any automation should be carefully evaluated before it’s introduced.

For more information on whether flexible or fixed automation is right for your business, contact the experts in automation at EAM Inc. today.