An assembly line is basically a manufacturing process wherein parts added as the semi-assembly are moved across workstations in a designated sequence until the final assembled product is produced.
An automated assembly line kicks this idea up a notch. It becomes an automated production line comprising a series of workstations connected by an automatic transfer system and electrical control system. Each of these workstations is in charge of a specific operation as the part is processed and transferred step by step, moving along the production line in a pre-defined sequence.
Although the configuration of automated assembly lines can vary based on the type of production and volume, it can be divided into three basic categories: hard automation, programmable automation and soft automation.
● Hard Automation: Hard automation, also known as fixed automation, involves the use of specialty equipment to automate a fixed, pre-defined sequence of assembly line or processing. The sequence configured in this type of automated production line is normally simple, which typically adopts a linear or rotational motion, or the combination of the two. Compared with other automation types, hard automation is not very subjected to changes as the configuration is intended to be “fixed”.
● Programmable Automation: Assembly lines with programmable automation are usually configured to accommodate different changes to the sequence of operations. A program is usually adopted in this type of production line to control and monitor the operation sequence, which is essentially a set of instruction coded. This allows the system to quickly read and interprets the instructions. These programs can be renewed if new products are to be involved.
● Soft Automation: Soft automation, also referred to as the flexible automation, supplemented version of the programmable automation. A soft automation assembly line is able to produce a variety of parts without any time loss on changeovers from a single part style to the next. Reprogramming and tweaking the physical configuration of the production line is basically made easy and fast.
The biggest advantage of an automated assembly line is that it eliminates the need of human intervention for feeding raw materials to the production line. This results in fast, stable and accurate workflow as well as reduced production time and cost for manufacturing the products. To elaborate better, an automated assembly line can hugely reduce the labor cost and production cost, minimizing human errors while ascertaining optimal output quality and consistency.
That said, production managers are able to more efficiently allocate the human resources rather than constantly deploying them to perform repetitive tasks that could otherwise be accomplished by robots. This is especially crucial in hazardous working environments, as replacing human laborers can ensure the safety of both the workplace and workers, while being able to perform tasks beyond human capability pertaining to product size and weight.
In terms of cost, a significant amount of upfront cost for the automation system is inevitable, but think about the long-term return in your investment. The amount of money you can save from the reduced labor costs (including the additional revenue incurred, etc.) over the next two or three years will without a doubt offset the initial investment. In fact, the prospectively saved labor cost alone is said to be equivalent to at least 30 to 50% of return on investment. As a matter of fact, many of the countries known for producing superior quality products, such as Germany and Japan, all place a high emphasis on the investment of automation of production.
Despite all the wonderful things about assembly automation, it does not come without certain limitations. As mentioned previously, you need to expect a substantial amount of upfront expenditure for implementing the automated system, which may cost you millions of dollars just for the design. Also, even with reduced requirements for human oversight, it still requires a high level of maintenance compared with manually operated machines. Moreover, manual systems are more capable of accommodating a wider variety of products as opposed to automated production lines.
Another limitation, though sometimes controversial, is the possibility of automatic technology taking over human labor completely, resulting in less job opportunities and data privacy. You’ll most likely implement a shared Ethernet network to accommodate the newly installed automation system, and this may lead to the more effort and resources needed to protect the security of company data, resulting in more overhead cost.
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