Having built a world class manufacturing base to take it into the 21st Century, it is hoped this will be the engine for developing Ireland’s ­national economy for decades to come. Here Andy Parker Bates of Parker Hannifin Electromechanical looks at options for automating the various manufacturing processes – without spending a fortune using modular subsystems

Automation is vital to containing costs, ensuring productivity and improving product quality. Most engineers understand this, and are happy to think about automating manufacturing processes but they can be deterred by fears of high initial capital outlay and too little flexibility within an automation system to adapt and change over time.

The good news is neither of these are quite the issues they once were. In fact, a new approach is emerging, which makes the whole process very much more attractive, especially to small and medium sized companies that previously may have thought automation was beyond their means.

The new idea is based on modular subsystems, such as those manufactured by Parker, which although small and simple can be assembled together to form larger, more sophisticated automation systems. Each module performs a single task, then passes the workpiece onto the next module, which performs the next step.

In essence, there are two types of module: workstations and transfer stations. The former may include metal cutting, assembling, polishing, testing, visual inspection and packing; the latter moves the workpieces from operation to operation. Each station will have autonomous control, often through a dedicated local PLC, which is connected into a system-wide control network, which may well have a higher level controller such as a PC running in a supervisory role.

There are several advantages to this sort of arrangement. You can build the system one or two modules at a time, spreading capital outlay and allowing you to fine tune each module’s performance as you go along. Furthermore, the system is going to be easy to reconfigure to accommodate changes in product specification that occur over time. Another advantage is it becomes easier to integrate two or more automation systems. For instance, if you have two production lines making different products, working independently of each other, it would be simple to build an end-of-line automated packaging area serving both lines. Alternatively, you may merge the lines at one point where both products undergo the same process, such as collating or cartoning.

Typically, the workstations will be specialist units bought in from production equipment makers, while the transfer stations will be assembled from standard linear and rotary actuators with associated supporting frameworks, motors, gearboxes, sensors and controllers. From these it is possible to build simple yet effective handling systems based mainly on linear axes, with rotational ones where necessary. Naturally, by combining modules, complex multi-axis gantry, assembly or packaging systems with sophisticated controls can be built.

Normally such gantries would be designed, built and tested by the supplier, who will have taken a brief from the manufacturing company’s automation project leader. Significantly they will utilise almost exclusively standard electromechanical, pneumatic, drive and control technologies. These can deliver speeds of up to 5m/s over long stroke lengths, with precision and repeatability typically to within 0.05mm, and load handling up to 1,600kg. If heavy lifting is required, a hydraulic axis may be incorporated into the gantry.

Crucially, all of this will be undertaken by the gantry supplier at their expense and risk, on their premises and in their time. What is delivered to the end user is a kit of parts (and possibly an engineer) that can be assembled on site and working in a short time.

This approach to automation has the potential to revolutionise manufacturing and the way it develops over time. It gives end users the ability to build complete systems or sub-systems quickly and at relatively low cost, without the need for specialised engineering or the associated downtime while production lines are modified.

The approach will also make it easier to justify the costs of automating existing low-volume manual or semi-automated processes, enabling labour to be redeployed elsewhere. Because of the avoidance of bespoke equipment, delivery times should be short, and costs highly predictable.

Modularised kit-form automation holds many attractions and looks to be particularly appropriate to the current and future needs of the Irish manufacturing sector.