Factory floor automation improves efficiency and productivity and relieves workers of hazardous jobs. Properly handled, everyone can benefit.
There are two main types of automation – motion-control systems or robots. Each method offers different programming options, motion flexibility and economic advantages.
Applications that require precise positioning of components or other loads range from the very small to the very large. If positioning, synchronisation and repetition are the key factors required, a motion control system is usually the answer. Such systems are able to start and stop quickly without disruption of their ongoing operations.
Systems comprise three basic elements: controllers (often PLCs) to direct the trajectories of other parts; amplifying drives to steer, and a motor to supply the kinetic energy. Pulse output cards signal servos and stepper drives determining their directions, and position and velocity transducers can be added to provide feedback, fine-tuning motion accuracy.
Some models incorporate elaborate display panels (human machine interfaces or HMIs) providing the operator with a visual representation of the program’s execution.
Robots come in all shapes and sizes – cylindrical, spherical, all-swinging-arms or even, of course, humanoid. Their defining distinction is that they are self-contained, whereas the elements of a motion control system can be distributed across the factory floor. This design, like that of human beings, is intended to optimise their versatility so they can be programmed for a variety of tasks (or perform a variety in sequence).
Otherwise, robots are comprised mostly of the same electrical control components as other automated motion control solutions, components you can find in the catalogues of most electrical contractors (see http://www.osmelectrical.com).
A long-term aspiration of designers is to maximise robot versatility with artificial intelligence and machine learning. A.I. is rarely required on production lines but several forms of machine learning are often elements in their programming.
Robots need more feedback sensors than the simple transducers in motion control systems. Sensors are the robot’s eyes and ears, providing both guidance and operational safety. As well as light and sound sensors, touch and pressure pads commonly aid delicate manipulation of parts or tools. Many other types of sensor are possible.
Robots are intended to be versatile, ready-to-go units. Motion systems take longer to install but are modular, so cheaper to maintain. Investment is increasingly directed at plug-and-play functionality and user-friendly interfaces.