Automation: there’s still work to do

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BARA Chairman, George Thompson, believes automation systems and solutions providers have more work to do to introduce the benefits of adopting automation to as wide an audience as possible.

I recently took part in an interview for a trade publication where I was asked a series of questions about robotics and automation and how I thought they could be used within a specific industry sector. I answered one question with a question of sorts. The opening topic was about the latest developments in robotics, and my answer was, ‘That depends on how much the reader understands about robotics and automation’.

If they are early in their automation journey, everything is cutting edge. Whereas if a company is already experienced in at least the basics of automation, the answer is very different.

If a company is looking to dip their preverbal toe into the incredible world of automation, perhaps a collaborative robot could be a good starting point. One word of caution would be that despite what some may indicate, collaborative robots are subject to the same set of legislation as all other industrial robots and ignorance of the rules is never a valid form of defence in a court.

This led me to a discussion about what rules apply, and there are many, but the major ones are the Robot Standards (ISO 10218-1:2011 – Robots and robotic devices and ISO 10218-2:2011 – Robot Systems and Integration) and The Machinery Directive (Directive 2006/42/EC). In addition to this, there are others, such as the HSE Manual Handling Operations Regulations, which ask questions about how to reduce hazardous manual handling – specifically around the possibility of using automation or mechanisation to reduce the instances of manual handling. The topic of reducing manual handling risks to operatives could be a topic for another article all by itself.

All of this got me thinking about how we, as automation providers, need to find a way of reaching a larger audience to introduce the many benefits of adopting automation. There is so much that automation can offer, whether it is simple improvements to production efficiency or waste reduction, quality improvements or improvements to operative safety, just to name a few. There are also softer benefits like improving workplace morale by offering better jobs to operatives by automating the menial or low value-add operations and leaving the higher value-add tasks to the humans.

You knew I couldn’t resist banging on the sustainability drum again, so here goes… If existing and new equipment are interconnected and controlled by a central PLC, then the individual processes can increase or decrease production based on what is happening elsewhere within the production facility. For example, if the production facility has ten production processes for simplicity’s sake, and station seven has an unplanned stoppage, stations eight to ten will eventually be starved of product while stations one to six will be oversaturated. The big issue with this is if one or more of the stations has a time-sensitive component for this process, or perhaps the product itself is time sensitive; then there is the risk of the product or component effectively becoming waste. One possibility would be to purge dispensing tubes of components that may be approaching their critical time or increasing or decreasing temperatures to extend the life of the product or components. Although this may seem like it could be increasing waste, it is more likely to prevent the entire batch from needing to be purged by only wasting a small amount of the component to save the larger amount.

If you would like to start your automation journey but don’t know where to begin – I would highly recommend visiting AutomationUK and The Machine Vision Conference, which are both being held at the Coventry Building Society Arena in Coventry on 20 – 21 June. I hope to meet you there at the BARA stand.

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