Types of Automation Systems in Manufacturing

There are many types of automation in manufacturing. Whether for production or processes, automation systems in manufacturing environments are routinely employed to manage industrial machinery, tools, equipment, control systems, robotics, and more. Advances in automation technology have greatly increased the capabilities of manufacturers. Smart factories use automation for high-volume, low-volume, high-mix production. 

The primary benefit of automation in industrial manufacturing is greater efficiency and increased quality. Automation achieves a higher output at more consistent levels and can allow for flexibility in manufacturing processes. What determines the type of automation system a manufacturer employs is directly related to their production needs and goals. Of the many types of automation in manufacturing, here are 4 of the leading types of automation systems widely used today. 

1. Fixed Automation

Fixed automation, also called hard automation, refers to an automated manufacturing system where the production processes and assembly are preset to produce a single product. These systems are designed to produce a particular product, or a limited range of similar products, in a highly repetitive and efficient manner. The sequence of production and operation is fixed by the configuration of tooling, equipment, and machinery, which is dedicated to a specific set of tasks to meet high-production needs. 

To produce a specific product, fixed automation systems require a high initial investment in specialized machinery and equipment to manufacture that product. By definition, these types of automated manufacturing systems are inflexible. Once set up, they are not easily adaptable if there are any changes in the product design or production requirements. However, the ROI for manufacturers is assured by the fact that a fixed automation system is ideal for high production environments where the product demand is consistent and stable, and where production processes can be standardized to produce identical products or components, rapidly and efficiently, with high precision and reliability. A good example of a hard automation system is an automotive assembly line.

2. Flexible Automation

As the name suggests, flexible automation manufacturing systems are those easily reprogrammed or adapted to produce different products or handle variations in production processes. Flexible automation, also referred to as soft automation, allows manufacturers to quickly adapt and respond to production demands as needed. It is noted for its increased efficiency, improved quality, and greater flexibility to respond to rapidly changing markets. A key feature is next-to-zero downtime with minimum manual changeover procedures. Another feature is adaptability. The system’s ability to easily reconfigure or reprogram production processes to handle different tasks or product variations sets it apart from fixed automation. Flexibility also means scalability as the system can scale up or down to meet varying production volumes as needed without significant redesign or reengineering.

In flexible automation processes, machines are controlled by computerized systems that are programmed and operated by humans, either through multipurpose CNC machines or HMI (Human Machine Interfaces). The system works well for in-demand production or batch production runs. Technology and systems can be adapted to accommodate changes in production requirements. A higher investment for custom machinery and higher costs per unit are cons of flexible automation. Flexible automation is particularly valuable in industries like food processing, aerospace, electronics, consumer goods manufacturing, and textile manufacturing.

3. Programmable Automation

Programmable automation manufacturing systems utilize automated or robotic equipment controlled by commands delivered by a computer program. Programming can be changed as needed to accommodate batch production processes or for medium-to-high production volumes. Products can be produced in batch quantities ranging from a few dozen to thousands of units in one run.

Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) are an important component of programmable automation. PLCs allow for the programming and control of different automated processes. Programmable automation systems are ideal for customizing production tasks, monitoring the status of various components, or responding to changes in the production environment. There are initial investment costs to consider and, though reprogramming is necessary and changeover is time-consuming when changing out batch runs, unlike fixed automation systems, programmable automation systems allow for greater flexibility to change out products as needed or handle a variety of designs when needed. Some applications include intelligent robotic machines, industrial robots, and in paper and steel rolling mills.

4. Process Automation

Process automation involves using technology to automate manual processes through data and systems integration. A key feature of process automation involves the integration of various hardware and software systems to automate tasks that were traditionally performed by humans. It combines different types of industrial automation into one, creating a flexible and integrated automation system that improves efficiency, reduces costs, and allows employees to focus on other tasks.

Automation programming is used to perform repetitive tasks, control and monitor production processes, centralize information, and optimize overall efficiency throughout the factory or production environment. An automated network connects various hardware components like controllers, sensors, actuators, valves, and operator terminals to regulate process variables like temperature, flow, pressure, switches, and so forth. Industries like wholesale distribution and warehouses, oil and gas logistics, pharmaceuticals, and the food and beverage industry all benefit from process automation systems. 

Contact the Automation Experts at EAM, Inc.

Engineered Automation of Maine, Inc. is a leader in custom automated manufacturing machinery and industrial-engineered automation systems. We offer a range of engineered automation products, support, and solutions for industries as diverse as automotive, food processing, microelectronics, and precision medical equipment technology. For more information on industrial automation or to learn more about the types of industrial automation systems that would be best suited for your company, contact EAM, Inc. today.