Innovations — like AI, big data analytics, industrial IoT and collaborative robotics — are rapidly expanding the range of what automation can do for factories. A McKinsey report on the future of automation estimates that it will raise global productivity growth from 0.8% to 1.4% over the next few years.
With the right automation systems, machines and robotics in place, it’s possible to automate factory processes more efficiently. This expanded range of opportunities for automation has created major benefits for businesses that invest in industrial automation.
1. Improving Workplace Ergonomics
Robots and automated systems are best at doing tasks that are tedious for workers or require repetitive motions and the completion of microtasks. These are the leading cause of musculoskeletal disorders, according to BLS data.
These MSDs account for between one-half and one-third of all injuries requiring time off from work. This is significantly costly for businesses.
Automated systems can help you ensure workers are only being used where they’re needed most. With the right robotics or system in place, you can avoid requiring people to complete repetitive or tedious tasks for multiple hours at a time. This will help reduce the risk of MSDs that can require a worker to be transferred to another position or need time off altogether.
2. Reducing and Avoiding Downtime
Traditional maintenance strategies — where technicians inspect and repair machines on a schedule — can’t always catch imminent machine failure or malfunctions that make robots less efficient.
With predictive maintenance, the system can see machine failure coming. Sensors embedded in or attached to machines and robots can use collect operating information — like temperature, vibration and timing — related to machine performance. A big data analytics platform can then analyze this information. Subtle correlations in operational data can then be used to alert managers when a machine is about to fail.
With these alerts, it’s possible to schedule repairs early or shut down robots that are on the verge of failure. This can help avoid costly downtime — a massive expense for any business.
3. Optimizing Efficiency and Use of Labor
At a time when unemployment is at its lowest, and we’re seeing one of the tightest labor markets in recent history, industrial labor is getting more expensive and harder to come by.
As labor costs have risen, however, robot costs have fallen. At the same time, the range of functions has expanded. It’s now possible for them to use advanced technology, like machine vision, to analyze a product or navigate a factory floor without assistance from a human operator. More roles than ever can be fully or partially automated, freeing up workers for jobs that require a human touch.
Robots can also be more efficient than people in some roles. Machines and robots don’t get tired and can work 24/7 without any impact on quality. While machinery can make mistakes, these errors are often more predictable than those made by humans. They can often be more easily traced back to a misconfigured system or issue in the production process.
With the right automated solution in place, factory managers can ensure labor is being used as efficiently as possible — potentially reducing costs and ensuring maximum productivity.
4. Better Data Collection
Many automated systems are designed to collect, analyze and derive insights from data — which is rapidly becoming one of the most valuable assets a factory or industrial site can have.
Improved data analytics is often one of the key strategies used when boosting the profitability of a warehouse. It can also work just as well at other industrial sites.
Better data collection can also enable features like predictive maintenance, as well as other features like remote monitoring and control of machines and workplace processes. This makes it possible for supervisors, managers and other workers to control the system, even when they aren’t or can’t be on-site.
5. Improving Quality Assurance/Quality Control
In factories that haven’t implemented automated solutions, quality checks are typically managed by people. These checks are often tedious and time-consuming but have been difficult to automate in the past.
New technology allows robots to effectively see parts or objects that need to undergo quality inspection and use visual analytics to detect when a part won’t work. For example, a system can detect if a piece is too long or too short, then mark it as nonconforming. The system can then prevent that part from reaching a customer or moving further down the production line.
The reliability of robots and automated processes can also make mistakes less likely and easier to catch, further reducing the chance that a nonconforming part or product makes it past quality control.
How Businesses Can Benefit From Industrial Automation
With the right system in place, it’s possible to automate more elements of industrial plants and factories than ever. Technology like machine vision can be used to help robots navigate factory floors or perform quality control. Other advancements, like big data analytics, can be used along with specialized sensors to detect when a machine or robot is about to fail.
These innovations can be used to significantly boost the efficiency of any factory and optimize the site’s use of labor.