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Agosto de 2020 Página 1 de 3

The Automated Factory during Times of Crisis

Jason Cornell, Engineer specialized in robotics and automation.

By now, many have heard the term Industry 4.0, but what does that mean in terms of lights-out manufacturing?

If you are old enough to read this, you will remember this time in our lives forever…it will also be written into history for those too young to remember and those that follow. Not one of us could imagine this world, where life suddenly came to a screeching halt. We all shake our heads in disbelief that just a few short weeks ago our economy was on the rise, in some of the best times ever, and we saw our futures expanding before our very eyes. Then one day…it all just stopped. Our governments issued stay-at-home orders, essentially shutting down our world. The COVID-19 virus had become a global pandemic, which changed everything for us.

In times of uncertainty and crisis, our primal human needs take hold. When disasters strike, we seek our basic needs – shelter, food, water, and safety. These are the essentials, and they are our highest priorities for survival.

One might ask, “What is the correlation between global catastrophe and automated factories?” The commonality is that we are a part of the front line as well. Our abilities to manufacture goods, helps to provide the essential items which keep our lives and world moving forward.

War, environmental disaster, and disease outbreak, are some examples of crises that have the ability to change the landscape of our world economy. With items such as medical supplies and food (including packaging) high on our list of essential items during a crisis, how does automation help to keep those supply chains flowing?

What happens when people cannot get to work, or are allowed to go to work? Although other aspects of our world may be shutting down, it is paramount that we ensure our manufacturing lines do not. At the very least, our goal should be to minimize the impact of any potential disruptions. How do we keep our factories running with limited human intervention? Is it possible?

Is there a Solution?

Yes, in many instances we can continue to run our factories and limit the amount of dependence on human interaction. Now, I understand that this is a touchy subject for some. The discussion of automated manufacturing may conjure images of lost jobs. Although that may be true to some respect, automation has also been responsible for creating many jobs. Automation has also been instrumental in moving people away from hazardous manufacturing processes.

Robots and automation can also allow those in higher-cost countries the ability to better compete with those in lower-cost countries. This ultimately helps to retain manufacturing jobs. If company A without automation isn’t able to compete with company B that is automated, or company C that has a low labor rate, company A risks not being able to stay in business. What does that mean for all of those employees?

For years automation suppliers have promoted the benefits that they are able to bring to the manufacturing process. Increased production output, cycle consistency and better part quality are just some of the ways that automation can help manufacturers compete and thrive. Reduced direct labor on the manufacturing lines is another potential benefit.

The Lights-Out Factory

What is the reality of all of this and how does it work? Let’s look at the concept of a “lights-out” factory. The idea of lights-out manufacturing is a factory that can be left unattended for some duration of time, without affecting output. That amount of time is the variable that we need to better understand. Can an operation be left unattended for a shift? Can it be left unattended overnight, or over the weekend? Can it go without operator intervention even longer?

In order to figure it out, we need to look at a number of different items. First, we need to evaluate the entire manufacturing process. We need to consider how raw and finished materials flow through the cell. Since I primarily work with automation in the plastics injection molding industry, we will use that for our examples. However, many of the same principles and concepts will apply to other types of manufacturing industries.

Automating an Injection Molding Line

The primary raw material that we think of in an injection molding process is the plastic. This is typically supplied in the form of pellets. How do we keep that supply coming and for how long? Material comes from the supplier in bags, Gaylords, trucks and rail cars. Many times for larger operations, material is then loaded into silos, which allows them to run for long lengths of time before needing to replenish their supply. How long the material can be fed without replenishment depends on the machine cycle time and shot size. Each operation will have to consider the best ways to store the bulk material.

From bulk, the material can then be automatically fed to the injection molding machine (IMM) with the use of vacuum loaders, or other forms of material handling equipment. Many molders are already implementing this step in their process. Of course there are other considerations related to the plastic material, such as drying and mixing, but these steps can be automated relatively easily as well.

Now let’s look at the molding process and the extraction of the parts from the machine. The injection molding machine itself, automates the process from the infeed of the raw plastics, to the finished parts. Once the parts have been molded, what are the next steps in the process?

Palabras relacionadas:
automated factory, Industry 4.0, automated factories, how machines and humans work together, concept of a “lights-out” factory, Jason Cornell

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