Automated production lines

An automated production line consists of a series of workstations connected by a transfer system to move parts between the stations. This is an example of fixed automation, since these lines are typically set up for long production runs, perhaps making millions of product units and running for several years between changeovers. Each station is designed to perform a specific processing operation, so that the part or product is constructed stepwise as it progresses along the line. A raw work part enters at one end of the line, proceeds through each workstation, and emerges at the other end as a completed product. In the normal operation of the line, there is a work part being processed at each station, so that many parts are being processed simultaneously and a finished part is produced with each cycle of the line. The various operations, part transfers, and other activities taking place on an automated transfer line must all be sequenced and coordinated properly for the line to operate efficiently. Modern automated lines are controlled by programmable logic controllers, which are special computers that facilitate connections with industrial equipment (such as automated production lines) and can perform the kinds of timing and sequencing functions required to operate such equipment.Automated production lines are utilised in many industries, most notably automotive, where they are used for processes such as machining and press working. Machining is a manufacturing process in which metal is removed by a cutting or shaping tool, so that the remaining work part is the desired shape. Machinery and motor components are usually made by this process. In many cases, multiple operations are required to completely shape the part. If the part is mass-produced, an automated transfer line is often the most economical method of production. The many separate operations are divided among the workstations. Transfer lines date back to about 1924.Press-working operations involve the cutting and forming of parts from sheet metal. Examples of such parts include automobile body panels, outer shells of major appliances (e.g., laundry machines and ranges), and metal furniture (e.g., desks and file cabinets). More than one processing step is often required to complete a complicated part. Several presses are connected together in sequence by handling mechanisms that transfer the partially completed parts from one press to the next, thus creating an automated press-working line.

Numerical control

As discussed above, numerical control is a form of programmable automation in which a machine is controlled by numbers (and other symbols) that have been coded on punched paper tape or an alternative storage medium. The initial application of numerical control was in the machine tool industry, to control the position of a cutting tool relative to the work part being machined. The NC part program represents the set of machining instructions for the particular part. The coded numbers in the program specify xyz coordinates in a Cartesian axis system, defining the various positions of the cutting tool in relation to the work part. By sequencing these positions in the program, the machine tool is directed to accomplish the machining of the part. A position feedback control system is used in most NC machines to verify that the coded instructions have been correctly performed.

Today a small computer is used as the controller in an NC machine tool, and the program is actuated from computer memory rather than punched paper tape. However, initial entry of the program into computer memory is often still accomplished using punched tape. Since this form of numerical control is implemented by computer, it is called computer numerical control, or CNC. Another variation in the implementation of numerical control involves sending part programs over telecommunications lines from a central computer to individual machine tools in the factory, thus eliminating the use of the punched tape altogether. This form of numerical control is called direct numerical control, or DNC.

Many applications of numerical control have been developed since its initial use to control machine tools. Other machines using numerical control include component-insertion machines used in electronics assembly, drafting machines that prepare engineering drawings, coordinate measuring machines that perform accurate inspections of parts, and flame cutting machines and similar devices. In these applications, the term numerical control is not always used explicitly, but the operating principle is the same: coded numerical data are employed to control the position of a tool or workhead relative to some object.

To illustrate these alternative applications of numerical control, the component-insertion machine will be considered here. Such a machine is used to position electronic components (e.g., semiconductor chip modules) onto a printed circuit board (PCB). It is basically an xy positioning table that moves the printed circuit board relative to the part-insertion head, which then places the individual component into position on the board. A typical printed circuit board has dozens of individual components that must be placed on its surface; in many cases, the lead wires of the components must be inserted into small holes in the board, requiring great precision by the insertion machine. The program that controls the machine indicates which components are to be placed on the board and their locations. This information is contained in the product-design database and is typically communicated directly from the computer to the insertion machine.

Automated assembly

Assembly operations have traditionally been performed manually, either at single assembly workstations or on assembly lines with multiple stations. Owing to the high labour content and high cost of manual labour, greater attention has been given in recent years to the use of automation for assembly work. Assembly operations can be automated using production line principles if the quantities are large, the product is small, and the design is simple (e.g., mechanical pencils, pens, and cigarette lighters). For products that do not satisfy these conditions, manual assembly is generally required.
Automated assembly machines have been developed that operate in a manner similar to machining transfer lines, with the difference being that assembly operations, instead of machining, are performed at the workstations. A typical assembly machine consists of several stations, each equipped with a supply of components and a mechanism for delivering the components into position for assembly. A workhead at each station performs the actual attachment of the component. Typical workheads include automatic screwdrivers, staking or riveting machines, welding heads, and other joining devices. A new component is added to the partially completed product at each workstation, thus building up the product gradually as it proceeds through the line. Assembly machines of this type are considered to be examples of fixed automation, because they are generally configured for a particular product made in high volume. Programmable assembly machines are represented by the component-insertion machines employed in the electronics industry, as described above.

Robots in manufacturing

Today most robots are used in manufacturing operations; the applications can be divided into three categories:
(1) material handling,
(2) processing operations, and
(3) assembly and inspection.


Material-handling applications include material transfer and machine loading and unloading. Material-transfer applications require the robot to move materials or work parts from one location to another. Many of these tasks are relatively simple, requiring robots to pick up parts from one conveyor and place them on another. Other transfer operations are more complex, such as placing parts onto pallets in an arrangement that must be calculated by the robot. Machine loading and unloading operations utilize a robot to load and unload parts at a production machine. This requires the robot to be equipped with a gripper that can grasp parts. Usually the gripper must be designed specifically for the particular part geometry.

Processing operations

In robotic processing operations, the robot manipulates a tool to perform a process on the work part. Examples of such applications include spot welding, continuous arc welding, and spray painting. Spot welding of automobile bodies is one of the most common applications of industrial robots in the United States. The robot positions a spot welder against the automobile panels and frames to complete the assembly of the basic car body. Arc welding is a continuous process in which the robot moves the welding rod along the seam to be welded. Spray painting involves the manipulation of a spray-painting gun over the surface of the object to be coated. Other operations in this category include grinding, polishing, and routing, in which a rotating spindle serves as the robot’s tool.

Assembly and inspection

The third application area of industrial robots is assembly and inspection. The use of robots in assembly is expected to increase because of the high cost of manual labour common in these operations. Since robots are programmable, one strategy in assembly work is to produce multiple product styles in batches, reprogramming the robots between batches. An alternative strategy is to produce a mixture of different product styles in the same assembly cell, requiring each robot in the cell to identify the product style as it arrives and then execute the appropriate task for that unit.

The design of the product is an important aspect of robotic assembly. Assembly methods that are satisfactory for humans are not necessarily suitable for robots. Using a screw and nut as a fastening method, for example, is easily performed in manual assembly, but the same operation is extremely difficult for a one-armed robot. Designs in which the components are to be added from the same direction using snap fits and other one-step fastening procedures enable the work to be accomplished much more easily by automated and robotic assembly methods.

Inspection is another area of factory operations in which the utilization of robots is growing. In a typical inspection job, the robot positions a sensor with respect to the work part and determines whether the part is consistent with the quality specifications.

In nearly all industrial robotic applications, the robot provides a substitute for human labour. There are certain characteristics of industrial jobs performed by humans that identify the work as a potential application for robots: (1) the operation is repetitive, involving the same basic work motions every cycle; (2) the operation is hazardous or uncomfortable for the human worker (e.g., spray painting, spot welding, arc welding, and certain machine loading and unloading tasks); (3) the task requires a work part or tool that is heavy and awkward to handle; and (4) the operation allows the robot to be used on two or three shifts.

Computer process control

In computer process control, a digital computer is used to direct the operations of a manufacturing process. Although other automated systems are typically controlled by computer, the term computer process control is generally associated with continuous or semicontinuous production operations involving materials such as chemicals, petroleum, foods, and certain basic metals. In these operations the products are typically processed in gas, liquid, or powder form to facilitate flow of the material through the various steps of the production cycle. In addition, these products are usually mass-produced. Because of the ease of handling the product and the large volumes involved, a high level of automation has been accomplished in these industries.

The modern computer process control system generally includes the following:

(1) measurement of important process variables such as temperature, flow rate, and pressure,

(2) execution of some optimizing strategy,

(3) actuation of such devices as valves, switches, and furnaces that enable the process to implement the optimal strategy, and

(4) generation of reports to management indicating equipment status, production performance, and product quality.

Today computer process control is applied to many industrial operations, two of which are described below.

The typical modern process plant is computer-controlled. In one petrochemical plant that produces more than 20 products, the facility is divided into three areas, each with several chemical-processing units. Each area has its own process-control computer to perform scanning, control, and alarm functions. The computers are connected to a central computer in a hierarchical configuration. The central computer calculates how to obtain maximum yield from each process and generates management reports on process performance.

Each process computer monitors up to 2,000 parameters that are required to control the process, such as temperature, flow rate, pressure, liquid level, and chemical concentration. These measurements are taken on a sampling basis; the time between samples varies between 2 and 120 seconds, depending on the relative need for the data. Each computer controls approximately 400 feedback control loops. Under normal operation, each control computer maintains operation of its process at or near optimum performance levels. If process parameters exceed the specified normal or safe ranges, the control computer actuates a signal light and alarm horn and prints a message indicating the nature of the problem for the technician. The central computer receives data from the process computers and performs calculations to optimize the performance of each chemical-processing unit. The results of these calculations are then passed to the individual process computers in the form of changes in the set points for the various control loops.

Substantial economic advantages are obtained from this type of computer control in the process industries. The computer hierarchy is capable of integrating all the data from the many individual control loops far better than humans are able to do, thus permitting a higher level of performance. Advanced control algorithms can be applied by the computer to optimize the process. In addition, the computer is capable of sensing process conditions that indicate unsafe or abnormal operation much more quickly than humans can. All these improvements increase productivity, efficiency, and safety during process operation.

Like the chemical-processing industries, the basic metals industries (iron and steel, aluminum, etc.) have automated many of their processes by computer control. Like the chemical industries, the metals industries deal in large volumes of products, and so there is a substantial economic incentive to invest in automation. However, metals are typically produced in batches rather than continuously, and it is generally more difficult to handle metals in bulk form than chemicals that flow.

An example of computer process control in the metals industry is the rolling of hot metal ingots into final shapes such as coils and strips. This was first done in the steel industry, but similar processing is also accomplished with aluminum and other metals. In a modern steel plant, hot-rolling is performed under computer control. The rolling process involves the forming of a large, hot metal billet by passing it through a rolling mill consisting of one or more sets of large cylindrical rolls that squeeze the metal and reduce its cross section. Several passes are required to reduce the ingot gradually to the desired thickness. Sensors and automatic instruments measure the dimensions and temperature of the ingot after each pass through the rolls, and the control computer calculates and regulates the roll settings for the next pass.

In a large plant, several orders for rolled products with different specifications may be in the mill at any given time. Control programs have been developed to schedule the sequence and rate at which the hot metal ingots are fed through the rolling mills. The production control task of scheduling and keeping track of the different orders requires rapid, massive data gathering and analysis. In modern plants this task has been effectively integrated with the computer control of the rolling mill operations to achieve a highly automated production system.

Computer-integrated manufacturing

Since about 1970 there has been a growing trend in manufacturing firms toward the use of computers to perform many of the functions related to design and production. The technology associated with this trend is called CAD/CAM, for computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing. Today it is widely recognized that the scope of computer applications must extend beyond design and production to include the business functions of the firm. The name given to this more comprehensive use of computers is computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM).

CAD/CAM is based on the capability of a computer system to process, store, and display large amounts of data representing part and product specifications. For mechanical products, the data represent graphic models of the components; for electrical products, they represent circuit information; and so forth. CAD/CAM technology has been applied in many industries, including machined components, electronics products, and equipment design and fabrication for chemical processing. CAD/CAM involves not only the automation of the manufacturing operations but also the automation of elements in the entire design-and-manufacturing procedure.

Computer-aided design (CAD) makes use of computer systems to assist in the creation, modification, analysis, and optimization of a design. The designer, working with the CAD system rather than the traditional drafting board, creates the lines and surfaces that form the object (product, part, structure, etc.) and stores this model in the computer database. By invoking the appropriate CAD software, the designer can perform various analyses on the object, such as heat transfer calculations. The final object design is developed as adjustments are made on the basis of these analyses. Once the design procedure has been completed, the computer-aided design system can generate the detailed drawings required to make the object.

Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) involves the use of computer systems to assist in the planning, control, and management of production operations. This is accomplished by either direct or indirect connections between the computer and production operations. In the case of the direct connection, the computer is used to monitor or control the processes in the factory. Computer process monitoring involves the collection of data from the factory, the analysis of the data, and the communication of process-performance results to plant management. These measures increase the efficiency of plant operations. Computer process control entails the use of the computer system to execute control actions to operate the plant automatically, as described above. Indirect connections between the computer system and the process involve applications in which the computer supports the production operations without actually monitoring or controlling them. These applications include planning and management functions that can be performed by the computer (or by humans working with the computer) more efficiently than by humans alone. Examples of these functions are planning the step-by-step processes for the product, part programming in numerical control, and scheduling the production operations in the factory.

Computer-integrated manufacturing includes all the engineering functions of CAD/CAM and the business functions of the firm as well. These business functions include order entry, cost accounting, employee time records and payroll, and customer billing. In an ideal CIM system, computer technology is applied to all the operational and information-processing functions of the company, from customer orders through design and production (CAD/CAM) to product shipment and customer service. The scope of the computer system includes all activities that are concerned with manufacturing. In many ways, CIM represents the highest level of automation in manufacturing.