Ever since the birth of the industrial revolution, man's efforts to automate production have been clear: to reduce the labour required so that more can be produced for less. Even before personal computers hit the scene, automation control was used in the factory. With the advent of the personal computer and the great increase in computing power it supplied, factory automation entered a new era, increasing in power a hundredfold, automating processes that never could have been automated before.
Automation of production is the realm of high-volume manufacturing. The cost of developing automated equipment, including the cost of the automation controls, makes it impractical for low to medium volume manufacturing. While it is possible to build some flexibility into these systems, they are essentially designed and built for the manufacture of only one product. Additional products require additional manufacturing lines.
The challenge in using industrial automation and control equipment is that it requires much more knowledge on the part of everyone involved in the process. From installation and programming to monitoring, these controls speak a language of their own, making them a challenge to implement, even with the obvious reduction in costs that they provide.
A Brief Overview of Industrial Automation and Control Equipment
Early automated controls for industry consisted of analogue circuits were controlled by simple sensors and banks of relays. This technology evolved into programmable logic controllers (PLCs), which accomplished the same task with simpler programming and much greater flexibility for change and upgrades. While PLCs are still in use, modern more advanced automated controls are much more sophisticated, being based on the same microprocessors we find in desktop and laptop computers.
Any automated industrial control receives inputs from a variety of sensors. These sensors can be micro-switches, hall-effect sensors (magnetic sensors), pressure sensors, rotary position sensors, digital scales, voltage and current sensors, flow meters, and temperature sensors. These are essentially the eyes, ears and nerves of the system, which tell the controller what is happening in its world.
Outputs from the controller run motors, pumps, steppers, actuators, pneumatic devices, and hydraulic devices as needed to move the products through the assembly process. These are the hands and arms of the system, turning the commands of the controller into movement in the factory by moving materials, modifying them, connecting them, and building the product that the factory produces.
The controller itself is a microprocessor with a language that is customized for automation. Programming is done on a personal desktop computer, compiled, and then uploaded into the controller. The instructions in the program tell the controller how to interpret the information from the sensors and control the automated assembly line. Based upon the steps in the program and the program's interpretation of the sensors, the manufacturing process adapts, changing the process as needed to keep production flowing.
Modern controllers connect to the company's network, reporting production volume, rate, and other key factors, so that management and staff can have a constant update on how the automated system is working. Some systems even contain self-diagnostic tools, informing maintenance of any necessary maintenance or repairs.
Training Staff to Work with Automated Industrial Controls
Companies that have never used industrial automation in their factories are faced with huge challenges in its implementation. Productions lines must be totally redesigned to accommodate automatic movement of materials, while standard equipment must be replaced with equipment that is compatible with automated processes and can interface with computerized controllers. Often, the changeover to automation is a prolonged project, with the old assembly lines running in parallel to the new automated ones, until all the bugs are worked out.
The greatest challenge in switching over to industrial automation is not an equipment changeover or even a financial one, it is a personnel changeover. Personnel at all levels need to be retrained in how to work with the new equipment. While it is sometimes possible to hire personnel who are trained in automation, replacing existing personnel with ones who know automation entails losing the expertise of existing personnel in the company's products, not a desirable outcome.
The largest training challenge for implementing industrial automation lies in the manufacturing engineering department. Engineering a production operation for manual assembly and engineering one for automated assembly are quite different. Yet, the burden of designing the production line and programming the controllers falls to manufacturing engineering.
Fortunately, manufacturers of these systems offer training seminars for manufacturing engineers, teaching them how to work with their equipment. An engineer does not have to go back to school to learn the necessary skills but can do so at a week-long training seminar.
While more complicated, modern controllers are easier to program than their predecessors, mostly because of the highly graphic nature of the programming software. Whereas early controllers required the engineer programming in a specialized machine language, modern controllers can be programmed in a semi-graphic manner, which is easier to learn and much less error-prone.
While the design engineers do not have anything to do with the design of the automated systems or the programming of the controllers, they do have a part in making products compatible with automated assembly. Most products need some redesign in order to be produced on automated assembly lines. This is the realm of design engineering. Fortunately, the information they need is readily available in open source technical journals.
The maintenance department has the burden of keeping the automated systems operating correctly. In many companies, they build the automated assembly line, following the direction of the manufacturing engineering department. While they do not have to know how to program the controllers like the engineers do, they do need an understanding of how they operate in order to troubleshoot problems with the equipment.
Most industrial automation requires very precise calibration. This is also the responsibility of the maintenance department, both as the equipment is installed and as a part of regular preventative maintenance and inspections. As with the manufacturing engineers, the maintenance team can receive their training through seminars that the controller manufacturers offer.
Production's responsibility in an automated factory is greatly changed. Rather than building the product, production personnel take on the responsibility of "supervising" the automated equipment. This requires training manufacturing personnel in how to interpret the information the automated controllers provide, and how to recognize problems with the system, before they become serious.
The manufacturing engineering department with assistance from trainers in the human resources department usually train production personnel who have to work with the automated assembly line. As their training needs are not as technical or complicated, it can usually be accomplished without outside assistance.
One problem that usually must be overcome in the production department is that of resentment. Whenever industrial processes are automated, less manpower is required in the factory. This can cause resentment, often severe, due to job losses. Part of the training cycle for these employees must deal with this resentment, helping them to eliminate it effectively and non-destructively.
Stocking materials for automated manufacturing is considerably different than stocking it on a production line where workers that have eyes and brains use them. A human operator can easily recognize a part that is turned in another direction. In most cases, the automated equipment cannot. Materials must be stocked in a manner conducive to the automated assembly process. This requires a change in attitude on the part of the materials handlers, who must understand the necessity of stocking the materials in a way that the automated process can readily accept them.
Buying Industrial Automation Controllers on eBay
Industrial automation controllers can be expensive to buy. That makes eBay an even better place to shop for them. You can find both new and used controllers for excellent prices. It does not matter if you are looking for a simple temperature controller or a programmable logic controller, you can find it on eBay by performing a keyword search for the product by typing it into the search bar.
When selecting industrial automation control equipment, it is important to keep compatibility in mind. While some components are universal, such as sensors and relays, the controllers themselves and controller components are proprietary to the manufacturers. Therefore, it is necessary to keep everything brand specific. Even so, a brand may have several different lines of controllers, which are not compatible with each other. Information about this can be encountered on the manufacturer's website.
With today's solid-state circuitry, buying a used controller is no problem. These do not wear out, like older relay based control systems. With no moving parts, there is nothing to wear out. While used controllers may not be the latest and greatest technology, they provide an excellent alternative at a very reasonable price. In most cases, the latest technology is not really necessary.
Changing a factory over to automated assembly, through the use of industrial automation and control equipment is definitely worth the time and effort. While the effort to make the switch is considerable, the cost benefits over the product life more than make up for the cost of redesigning the assembly system for automation.
One of the biggest challenges to face in implementing industrial automation is that of training. There are a lot of people who need some training in order to be able to work with the systems. The first people who need training are the engineers, both manufacturing engineers and design engineers. Of the two, the biggest burden falls on the manufacturing engineers, as they are the ones who must design and program the system. Because of this, they need to be trained first.
Other than manufacturing engineers and maintenance technicians, the majority of the personnel who need training for working with industrial automation can be trained in-house. While there is an impact on their jobs, the impact is not so much technical, as changing the way they do their jobs. However, for the manufacturing engineers and maintenance technicians, outside training is required.