Automation has been used in industrial settings for decades to improve productivity and reduce costs. Over time, the need to increase quality and reduce risk has led to the next generation of automation. Industrial automation uses computerized machinery, advanced control systems, and data analytics to help companies create highly automated processes that improve operations and lead to competitive advantages. This article explores the benefits of industrial automation and the various types that companies can implement to achieve these benefits.
What Is Industrial Automation?
Industrial automation uses control systems to operate machinery, navigation, and networks without the direct involvement of human operators. Industrial automation has been eagerly adopted by suppliers, manufacturers, and transportation companies that need to improve operational performance.
Manufacturers use industrial automation to streamline physical processes such as vehicle assembly. Hardware and software applications are used to create assembly lines that are heavily automated, with industrial robots completing much of the dangerous and repetitive work that used to be done by humans.
Transportation sector use cases include self-driving cars and fleet management. Using data from connected devices and sensors, fleet managers can track fuel usage, identify unsafe driving behaviors, and optimize routing.
Raw materials producers leverage industrial automation processes to remotely operate mining equipment in dangerous conditions, often without direct human supervision.
Types of Industrial Automation
Industrial automation has numerous applications for a wide variety of industries. Although the way the technology is applied may vary, all forms of industrial automation fall into one of four categories.
Fixed automation is technology and machinery that boosts rates of production. Sometimes referred to as hard automation, this involves a set of fixed sequences. Machinery is programmed to produce a specific product or complete a production process autonomously. One of the most familiar applications of this technology is the modern assembly line. Although the least technically advanced type of industrial automation, fixed automation processes increase production rates, decrease human errors, and lower unit cost.
Programmable automation closely resembles fixed automation but with one key difference: Its automated components aren't fixed, so they can be reprogrammed based on the needs of the production run or batch being produced. Reprogramming can be a lengthy process as new program commands must be uploaded and, in some instances, the physical components involved in assembly must be reconfigured. Common applications of programmable automation include CNC tools such as plasma cutters.
Flexible, automation, or soft automation, bypasses the lengthy reconfiguration process often associated with programmable automation. Flexible automation processes allow users to quickly code process changes, easily enabling manufacturing processes that involve multiple product designs with small to medium-sized production runs. Flexible automation is often used to program automated machinery capable of completing multiple tasks such as a robot arm that can be programmed to insert screws, sand, and spray-paint objects as they move along an assembly line.
The most advanced form of industrial automation, integrated automation requires no direct human intervention. This technology uses a single control system to manage and sync all of the machinery, operations, and data needed to automate an entire production process. Used in both batch and continuous flow processing, integrated automation is commonly used by product packagers and food and beverage manufacturers.
Improving Industrial Automation with Data
Data is the lifeblood of industrial automation. Data-driven insights enable decision-makers to uncover opportunities for improvement and reduce risk, leading to significant gains across all business areas. Here are just a few of the benefits:
Industrial automation leads to higher profits when data is analyzed and insights are acted upon. One example of this is how IoT sensors installed across the entire assembly line can be networked together, providing a true end-to-end view of operations. The data these sensors collect can be used to quickly and accurately diagnose impending maintenance issues or uncover which machines are operating below capacity and how throughput rates can be adjusted to optimize performance. Making adjustments to issues like these directly impacts the bottom line.
Enhance product quality
IoT sensors mounted on workers’ tools can track how the tools are utilized, measuring inputs such as acceleration and time in use. If the metrics don’t match established parameters for proper usage, an alert can be triggered, indicating a potential breach of quality-control guidelines. In addition, data gathered from sensors across the manufacturing process can be analyzed to conduct root-cause analysis to uncover the source of manufacturing defects.
Improve worker safety
Human workers often experience high levels of stress and fatigue while working on the factory floor. Devices worn by associates can measure the level of stress, strain, and temperature levels they’re exposed to. That data can then be analyzed to uncover how worker movements can be modified to reduce negative stressors or identify tasks that should be automated using a robot or machine.
Access artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities
Industrial automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning (ML) are natural partners. AI-powered robots are being used to transport components around the factory, assemble products alongside their human counterparts, and handle the most strenuous and dangerous tasks. Machine learning, a subfield of artificial intelligence, can help leverage the massive amount of operations data to uncover opportunities to improve efficiency.
Snowflake for Industrial Automation
Snowflake delivers the performance, scalability, and data sharing capabilities needed for industrial automation, including IoT, machine learning, and advanced data analytics. Suppliers, manufacturers, and transportation companies are using Snowflake to achieve a variety of objectives.
Gain a global real-time view of your supply chain while also leveraging local data to meet complex information requirements. Break down data silos across SCM systems, ERP platforms, order fulfillment systems, and IoT devices to gain complete visibility of your manufacturing processes. Power ML and AI with comprehensive, up-to-the-second data to improve product quality. Harness the capabilities of Snowflake to power industrial automation at scale.
See Snowflake’s capabilities for yourself. To give it a test drive, sign up for a free trial.