Flexible, adaptable automation on display at IMTS

AMT’s Doug Woods on the future of manufacturing and how to drive change and innovation.

By Doug Woods, President and CEO, Association for Manufacturing Technology August 28, 2014

It seems like just about everywhere you look, someone is talking about automation in manufacturing. Industry publications are writing about it, and a number of manufacturing-related events are focusing on it. So why has this suddenly become a big topic of such importance? Put simply, it’s more reliable and affordable than ever before, and it’s allowing manufacturers to make their operations more flexible and adaptive.

Automation has seen tremendous growth throughout manufacturing over the last several years. According to the International Federation of Robotics, worldwide sales of one type of automation, industrial robots, reached an all-time high in 2013, a double-digit increase over 2012; and in the U.S., robot installations continue to rise amid renewed efforts to keep manufacturing at home and to remain competitive abroad.

And while automation in the automotive industry continues to be strong, industries such as metal and machinery, food, medical device, pharmaceutical, and IT are also increasing their investments in automation.

Today’s reality is that manufacturers of all sizes and industries are becoming increasingly more productive and innovative by employing automation technology in their facilities. It’s easier than ever before to explore what automation can do to improve the production process, because shop floor automation is more accessible than ever before. It is less expensive and more capable of completing a wider array of tasks with greater flexibility and maximum efficiency.

The next generation of robots are working with people rather than replacing them. With added sensing and learning capabilities, robots are becoming adaptive to their environments and even collaborative with human workers. While robots handle the more mundane and repetitive tasks, human workers are free to take on more critical setup, programming, data analysis, and quality improvement tasks.

That last sentence is especially important. In an era where our industry faces a severe shortfall of skilled workers, automation is enabling many manufacturers to maintain productivity and keep their manufacturing operations at home. Today, advances in automation are creating skilled jobs faster than they can be filled. Some companies, like Steel Collar Associates, are even acting as "temp agencies" for industrial robots-companies can "hire" them just for the times and projects when they need them. But automation is more than robotics. It is also the key to unlocking the possibilities that Big Data collection and analytics represent to manufacturers. Sensors and microprocessors are cheap, abundant, and easier than ever to implement, and automation technology is a natural fit for embedding all those sensors. This allows for data collection in every phase of production-measuring speed, temperature, material properties, machine vibration, and tooling performance, just to name a few. At the same time, software companies are adding data analytics and visualization tools to their products, and cloud data storage and analysis have become more affordable. As the worlds of manufacturing hardware and software collide, the information generated can be used for product innovation, process improvement, capital utilization, predictive service, sales strategy, and so on.

Where does all of this lead? It’s not just about making things fast. Speed is just one component, but it’s also accompanied by an increased push toward mass customization. This is manufacturing’s Holy Grail: making what you want, when you want it, where you want it. Flexible and adaptive automation systems are making this a reality.

Of course, if you want to see some of the world’s best automation technology in action, you’ll need to visit Industrial Automation North America (IANA) and Motion, Drive & Automation North America (MDANA), two trade shows co-located with IMTS – The International Manufacturing Technology Show 2014, taking place September 8-13 at McCormick Place in Chicago. IANA, first co-located with IMTS 2012, was Deutsche Messe’s first-ever industrial technology event in the U.S. It features a complete range of automation products and solutions as well as conferences and educational training. This year’s edition will be almost double in size.

Just as IANA distinguished itself as an industry-leading event at IMTS 2012, MDANA is poised to become the networking hub of North America’s power transmission, motion control, and fluid technology sectors. In addition to the exhibits, MDANA will offer a variety of conferences, workshops, and training sessions covering topics such as industrial communications, robotic control, and 3D printing with the aim of helping manufacturers increase efficiency and productivity. It’s a great way to see the automation technology that complements the other technologies featured throughout IMTS. It allows you to see everything under one roof.

Manufacturers can’t ignore that advances in automation are changing the way they make products and run businesses. The firms that leverage it to their best advantage will be the champions of change and innovation. You can be the next one to find out how.

CFE Media will sponsor the 2014 Global Automation and Manufacturing Summit on Sept. 10 starting at 8:15 a.m. in Room W190 in the West Wing of McCormick Place.

Click here to register for the summit or for IANA.

To learn more about IMTS, the IMTS 2014 Conference, and to register, visit IMTS.com. Conversations within the IMTS community are going on at:

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