The Past, Present, and Future of Industrial Manufacturing Automation
Industrial automation is the use of different control systems to operate equipment like machines, factory processes, heat treating ovens and boilers, aircraft and other applications with minimal to no human intervention. Some industrial processes are fully automated to eliminate the need for human intervention altogether. The vision to have fully automated factories started in mid-20th century but the effort to automate manufacturing activities begun in the 1980s, when United States manufacturers coined the “lights out” manufacturing concept, which has still not been fully implemented.
Industrial automation in manufacturing entails the use of intelligent machinery in manufacturing plants to ensure that manufacturing processes are completed within the shortest time possible and with minimal human intervention. As such, it requires different control systems that facilitate the operating equipment to execute allotted tasks at the right speed, precision and endurance on their own. Industrial automation in manufacturing can be achieved through different techniques like electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, computers, pneumatic and electronic. In most cases, two or more of the techniques are combined to ensure top-notch system operations. However, airplanes, ships and state-of-the-art manufacturing plants combine all these techniques.
Current state of industrial automation in the manufacturing sector
Although most manufacturing industrial automation concepts are yet to be implemented fully (like the lights out concept, which envisioned an industrial setting where lights are switched off, leaving robots to do all the work), there has been remarkable progress since the 1980s. For instance, high precision and repetitive tasks in large industries like car assembly plants have been completely taken over by industrial robots.
Additionally, industrial robots offer high computing capabilities, a high operational degree of freedom and better vision systems. But they are only effective in highly structured environments and still require human intervention. Also, they are highly specialized and relatively inflexible for use in small and medium-sized manufacturing industries. With the growing proliferation of software and microcomputer technologies, automation for the manufacturing industry increasingly depends on computer and software capabilities to automate, integrate and optimize the different manufacturing system components. Hence, automation of the manufacturing industry is also referred to as computer integrated manufacturing.
The future of industrial automation in the manufacturing sector
Though industrial automation has been criticized, with claims that it will lead to mass unemployment, its future is very bright. Industrial engineers are focusing on improving the current industrial robots to provide future robots that can multi-function. This way, one machine can execute different industrial duties. Moreover, the industrial robots are projected to have more capabilities, like human workers, such as the ability to make decisions and to work autonomously. They will also feature predictive maintenance and self-diagnostic capabilities. Advancement in manufacturing industrial automation means that future factories will be quite efficient in the utilization of raw materials, human resources and above all, energy.
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