Mention automation and most people think high-volume production environments in which millions of parts are pumped out on a regular basis. While that may be true in many instances, it is definitely not the case at Choice Precision Inc. (Whitehall, PA).
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Traditionally, industrial robots have been deployed for manufacturing tasks that required brute strength, such as the heavy-payload robots used in the automotive industry, or they were of the speedy pick-and-place variety, the type of robots often deployed in medical or semiconductor applications. In most instances, safety requirements mandated that robots be entirely sealed off in fence-guarded cells to protect human workers from injury.
Taking stock of a surprising and challenging 2016, a number of trends may point to a future where manufacturing output increases while continuing to decentralize.
The virtualization of business-critical infrastructure is transforming the production and distribution of goods and services throughout the supply chain as industrial organizations shift focus from private to public and, ultimately, hybrid cloud deployments that connect and integrate on-premise resources with cloud resources.
Speeding the flow of jobs through the shop, while maintaining top quality, ranks among the hallmarks of any successful manufacturing operation’s goals.
Ask the owner of any machine shop or sheet-metal house to name the biggest obstacle to company growth and you’re likely to receive the same answer—it’s not a lack of working capital that’s slowing them down, nor a shortage of advanced technology, but something far more basic: the need for someone to push a green button or pack boxes. “We can’t find enough people,” you’ll hear.
There are plenty of manufacturing catchphrases: the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Industry 4.0 and the Digital Factory. “Sometimes it’s a lot of buzzwords. Sometimes there’s a lot of reality behind it,” said Roger Hart, research and development manager of Siemens (Berlin and Munich, Germany).
Manufacturers of all sizes see an uptick in productivity after adding a factory within a factory via an automated machining cell. The cells are small-scale, clearly defined production units, often for a family of similar parts or a product, and they typically include a robotic arm and one or more machine tools. These can include horizontal and vertical lathes, machining centers and grinders. The cell may also include a conveyor component.
Interesting changes have been happening at Haas Automation, one of the few American machine tool builders left standing after scores have been displaced over the decades by Japanese, German and Korean builders.
Design for manufacturing has been around for decades, but industry insiders say the next few years will be critical as technologies like additive manufacturing (AM) and virtual reality (VR) shape the future of the industry.