To understand flexible automation, it’s essential to have an understanding of “fixed” or “hard” automation. Fixed automation involves an application that is “customized around a single product and a specific task.” Over time, manufacturers are bound to upgrade product models, and those new models are likely to have different parts. With fixed automation, once a manufacturer begins working with new parts and processes, the fixed automation robot or system becomes obsolete unless they can find a way to repurpose it. Fixed automation is limited by the fact that it is so customized. And that is where flexible automation comes into play.
Because of the nature of manufacturing, particularly when it comes to industries like consumer electronics, there is a great deal of product turnover. Many times the life cycle of such products is 6-12 months. Flexible automation applications can easily adapt to new product parts and processes in short order. A base machine can be created that utilizes interchangeable tooling. After being used for one process, the tooling can quickly be switched out, and it can be used to complete a new process. Flexible automation can evolve with your process and demand. This evolution improves efficiency, stabilizes production costs, eliminates health and safety issues, and improves quality.
In some manufacturing situations, fixed automation is appropriate. In situations where the product parts remain the same, even as newer models are built, it can be an opportunity to secure long-term cost stability. In these cases, it can be more efficient to utilize a fixed automation system. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if parts aren’t being constantly redesigned.
Regardless of the type of automation system, the upfront costs are considerable due to the expense of building the base machine. The decision relies primarily on the type and volumes of parts required and being able to match those requirements with the appropriate manufacturing process. As more and more industries are dealing with low volume production runs and/or a higher mix of parts, this option becomes less attractive. Having to deconstruct and overhaul assembly lines for each new part or product every 6-12 months can become a costly proposition. Hence, flexible automation can save on costs, programming adjustments, and changeover time in these scenarios.