King December 1, 2019

Automation in manufacturing

Much has changed over the years regarding the manufacturing process. Perhaps one of the biggest changes for modern manufacturers is that, today, it’s all about data. Its unprecedented forms and variations make possible the building of databases that can be sorted and analyzed to a degree manufacturing predecessors could have only dreamed. This leads to superior levels of knowledge related to the contributing factors of a process, and it allows for greater proactivity when it comes to predictive decision-making. However, it is still not possible to predict all failures, though the latest technologies do get manufacturers closer. That’s where the trend of adopting flexible automated metrology systems comes into play.

Automating measurement in the manufacturing process itself isn’t new. It’s the how and why related to automated metrology that has evolved. Twenty years ago the primary systems for inline inspection were dedicated gages, specifically made for those operations. Today, we see that method dwindling and instead see more manufacturers moving toward more flexible options like CNC metrology systems.

Historically, systems like this were expensive to adapt when a product or process changed. Modern systems, though, only require a simple program modification to accommodate changes. This is a significant driver of increased automated metrology adoption. Another driver of automated measurement systems for manufacturing is the ability to have connectivity, whether it be external control (handshaking) with I/O support, or machine monitoring regarding the health of a system. Being able to keep tabs on individual systems as part of a greater manufacturing system is critical to success.

The Hows and Whys of Automating Metrology in Manufacturing

Most manufacturers looking to automate metrology are in search of a better way to handle inspection tasks and, in turn, be more efficient and profitable in terms of manufacturing quality. In addition, many are seeking ways to reduce reliance on manpower for inspection tasks while at the same time eliminating instances of operator error. Automating the measurement process makes these goals possible, and affords additional benefits including: the ability to ensure products are within the designed tolerance limits; allowing the warning or control limit settings to make adjustments to the process; the ability to oversee the process in real time; improved repeatability of inspection processes, achieving greater existing resource efficiency and the ability to allocate them to other critical, non-automated tasks; and faster remedy of deviations to reduce the risk of producing bad parts.

Automated data collection

Automated data collection and analysis from all measuring instruments help prevent human errors, create less scrap, and makes a better quality product more efficient to create.

Typically, post-automated system adoption, manufacturers begin realizing production and quality process benefits immediately. For example, with the manpower saved and increased throughput, many achieve ROI as soon as the process is released to production. But before they can reap any benefits, manufacturers have to overcome apprehensions about automating an entire shop floor, with the biggest hurdles often being the initial investment of money and specialized manpower required to ensure that all facets of the project are addressed, and convincing management to invest in a locally unproven methodology. In addition, other challenges must be addressed in relation to integration, including apprehension about not having needed support resources in house for the new technology,  the fact that not all applications can be easily replicated (if at all), and fears around how big the learning curve will be.

Another important factor to keep in mind is that the term and concept of automation means something different for every manufacturer. Therefore, the implementation and integration of automated metrology equipment and instruments into the manufacturing process will look different for every manufacturer, as well. It depends on what the current needs are, what challenges are to be overcome and the ultimate goal of rolling out the new technology. It also means realizing some measurement applications will be easily applied to others, while some others can’t be used for addressing new challenges. For example, implementation could be as basic as installing a value added accessory to the automated measurement solution to simply streamline the collection of traceability data or to minimize potential errors to an existing process. Or it could be a complete overhaul of the manufacturing process, requiring 100% inspection and closed loop feedback in real time.

It’s also crucial to not overlook that a manufacturer’s industry can impact how it approaches the task of automating metrology. The reality is that, in many industries, there are long proven methods in place and deviating from them in order to validate a new practice methodology can be an uphill battle. In addition, within certain industries, environmental factors come in to play and can impact some technologies’ ability to sustain the elements.

smart measuring machines

Implementing smart measuring machines in line with the manufacturing equipment while utilizing new data management software for real-time monitoring and measurements significantly reduces the product cycle while increasing quality.

Final Thoughts

For manufacturers, taking the leap to implement an automated metrology solution on the shop floor can seem daunting. A good first step is to find a trusted resource to partner with and help design the best fit for the manufacturing environment and the challenges it faces. It’s also helpful to consider trying out the products and technologies in a more controlled environment within the organization, like the quality lab, before moving them to their permanent home on the shop floor. This allows for quick support and reaction to needed adjustments without hindering production, and also allows for redundancy and a quantifiable baseline for the data without the impact of strong environmental influences.

Whatever the next stage in the automation evolution might be for you, it is certain that there are technologies and resources available to assist you in your pursuit of higher quality productivity. The landscape of the next stage of the industrial evolution is upon us, and those manufacturers that are keeping up with the technology curve will most likely emerge in a much stronger and profitable position for the future. Automation in any form will certainly not only aid the manufacturer, but also the workers in the future by releasing them from mundane tasks and pushing them in to a more elevated career path. By using and managing some the most advanced production systems ever seen in the manufacturing environment, technology will help push workers to the next level of productivity as they begin exploring and stepping into the automated measurement evolution.