The goal of achieving a fully autonomous factory that essentially runs by itself with little or no human involvement and zero waste, repair or energy loss is the future vision of most manufacturing organizations. Today, however, the industry is still in early phases of factory automation and manufacturers must take care not to apply technology for technology’s sake but to implement it where it makes most business sense, based on in-depth commercial and technical analysis.
For products such as automotive controllers and consumer medical products like heart monitors that require routine, pristine and error-free assembly, automation has become the defacto standard and a key requirement from original equipment manufacturers. For large telecommunications assemblies that are created to operate within network infrastructures, automation is not the optimal solution. These low volume products contain multiple heavy parts that require substantial investment in order to automate production, making the return unattractive. In addition, complex and large scale medical systems such as MRI machines are highly sophisticated products that require precision assembly with strict tolerances. Attempts to automate such assemblies demand costly and custom automation with limited scalability.
Between the ranges of full scale automation to no automation across manufacturing operations, there are varying degrees of automation that can be applied to provide the best value at the right stage of a production process. For example, a single robot can be used to hand solder a product because it’s a redundant and simple step that provides a good return on investment to automate. Other examples include use of robotics for the lifting of large, heavy materials for products that are produced in very high volumes, or autonomous factory vehicles that can be summoned to deliver materials to the factory floor at the proper stage of a production process.