Electronic Design

Automation Advances Spark Factory-Floor Efficiency

A quiet but unmistakable evolution is sweeping through today's plants and factories.

A quiet but unmistakable evolution is sweeping through today's plants and factories. Prodded by increasing computing power, automation steadily transforms our manufacturing, process, and assembly plants. Fully programmable-precision robots are replacing human operators, often performing tasks faster, more accurately, and more reliably. PCs are populating the factory floor. Wireless communications, along with industrial-grade Ether-nets, continues to revolutionize manufacturing.

Advances in integrating the sensing elements — the eyes and ears of the factory floor — with hardened networking technologies promise to make factory operations more efficient and profitable. This trend should broaden over the next couple of years as computing power advances.

Even before a product is made, computers come into play. In the premanufacturing stage, powerful simulation software lets companies realistically and accurately model an entire production process, much like how EDA tools enable IC designers to model silicon chips. It's now possible to model the entire plant environment, complete with workstations, robots, machines, and materials, thanks to sophisticated simulation software, which lets manufacturers evaluate different product, process, and resource combinations. It creates a virtual factory environment that eliminates the need for physical prototypes or mockups of production tooling (Fig. 1).

Technologically advanced tools like these are forcing old-line plant managers to rethink their approaches to automation. With increasingly shorter time-to-market, more sophisticated designs being called for, and intense worldwide competition reflected in ever-lower product prices, automation is the only approach they can justify. The old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" no longer applies if they want to stay in business.

Once a rare sight on the factory floor, PCs are becoming more commonplace in manufacturing for control and materials-handling applications. They're starting to replace programmable-logic controllers (PLCs), with a single PC often replacing dozens of PLCs while offering superior information integration, ease of use, and better I/O communications. The trend depends more on software rather than hardware and leverages the continuing advances in computational power and decreasing cost. Some automation experts argue that this simply makes more sense in the long term.

Compared to a PLC, there has always been and continues to be a level of uneasiness about a PC's reliability in a factory environment. Yet newer factory-floor PCs are being housed in ruggedized casings specifically hardened for the factory floor and with secure access to only the right operators (Fig. 2). Many of these machines also use redundant arrays of inexpensive disks (RAIDs) and have uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) for backup.

A PC has one big advantage over a PLC. It features greater power and transparency of a control language compared to decades-old ladder logic for PLCs. However, PLC manufacturers aren't standing still either. They're starting to use function blocks and sequential function charts for programming while boosting memory and processing power.

Anticipating greater use of an industrial and hardened version of Ethernet, industrial PCs and PLCs are adding low-cost ports on their products. At the same time, more industrial Ethernet support products like connectors, sockets, interfaces, routers, and bridges are becoming available. Ethernet on the factory floor will complete the missing connection between assembly and process control lines and management, suppliers, dealers, and design engineers, expediting the time-to-market for manufactured products.

Parts are getting smaller and more difficult to assemble manually, further necessitating the use of robotic assembly. Newer developments are producing highly dexterous robots with gripping agility and maneuverability superior to the human hand or finger (Fig. 3). According to the Robotics Industry Association, North American manufacturing companies ordered 10,573 robots valued at $811 million from North America-based robotics suppliers in 2002, an increase of 6% in units and 5% in revenue from 2001.

Factory use of industrial lasers is expected to advance, despite last year's downturn. They're used in everything from metal cutting, drilling, and welding to cleaning and marking materials in the automotive, semiconductor processing, and fabric industries. Experts predict use of these versatile devices to accelerate over the next couple of years.

One rising trend involves the use of machine vision to enhance factory automation. High-resolution CMOS camera chips are becoming more bountiful and affordable, making possible sophisticated machine vision systems for just a few thousand dollars. Teamed up with flexible robotic systems, applications really expand, also leading to a tremendous reduction in tooling costs. On a production line, parts come out of the hopper and onto a conveyor and can have any orientation. Expensive conveyance systems aren't needed, just a flat-belt conveyor.

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