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Next level of automation and networking


Moving to the next level of automation, manufacturers are warming up to wireless networks and higher payload robots to manage their operations with better efficiency at lower costs.

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The manufacturing sector in India has relied on manual labour for long. With rising input costs, the need to go lean is driving manufacturers invest in automation. However, even the most automated plants in India could feature an automation content of 30 to 40 per cent. This is significantly less than that of the plants in advanced economies, especially in the automotive industry. If the high levels of automation at Fiat’s Mirafiori factory at Turin to produce engines (dubbed as FIRE for Fully Integrated Robotised Engine) made headlines the world over in the late 1980s, the auto industry has been consistently moving up the automation ladder – the driving factors, the tightening emission norms and rising safety expectations, as well as issues of reliability and efficiency.

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With human intervention waning, robots are at the head of the automation drive in the automotive manufacturing sector. Making the deployment of robots viable is the emergence of less-expensive, high-payload robots over more conventional fixed tooling among automakers as they focus on cutting costs while improving manufacturing productivity and processes. In many areas of application, automotive manufacturers are finding that heavy-payload robots can easily take the place of fixed hard automation, often at a fraction of the price. No wonder, automotive majors like Tata Motors have made it a point to invest in a large number of robots at their plant at Pune. German robot manufacturer Kuka secured orders for a good 450 robots from Tata Motors and Volkswagen in 2009. Most of these as known to have been deployed in the body shop and the paint shop. With the robotic automation market estimated to be about Rs 1,000 crore annually, the auto and packaging industry being the biggest consumer, Maruti Suzuki, with about 650 robots on its lines, is claimed to have India’s largest robotic installation. With new plants of various automotive OEMs including Honda, Ford, Maruti Suzuki and Tata Motors having commissioned new plants, the demand for robots is further increasing. To ensure higher efficiency, tier suppliers are also taking to robots. This is leading to automotive manufacturers deploying greater use of machine-vision systems and vision-enabled robotics, newer force-sensing technologies, dual-purpose robots and robotic machining techniques that include grinding, polishing and deburring applications.

Automation networks in automotive assembly plants have begun an evolutionary process that could see a change in their fundamental operating parameters apart from improving productivity, and enhancing efficiency. A step ahead of deploying higher payload robots, automotive OEMs are moving towards wireless technologies to avoid relying on cables. Essentially, in response to the challenging conditions that make it difficult to deploy data and process control cables. There is a constant risk of network cables kinking, breaking or the connector failing as machines operate without rest. Add to this the fear of chemicals and greases corroding the cables, and having a detrimental effect on their life span. What adds to the costs is the efforts needed to maintain the cables, rectify any fault that may arise – downtime, leading to big losses.

Wireless networks are showing an ability to help tide over issues related to cable networks. The networking possibilities, battery-powered wireless networks like Accutech from Schneider are highlighting, it is clear that wireless networks can be installed easily. With quicker return on investment possible, wireless networks are easy to maintain. Consider the Honeywell Sensing and Control’s Limitless Line. It includes a health monitoring function, which ensures that the wireless switch or sensor is working properly. Alerts are sent when a problem occurs. In the case of battery powered devices, wireless systems provide a power diagnostic that not only makes sure that the device is working, but also provides advanced warning when batteries are losing their charge and are in need of a recharge or replacement. Wipro’s Telematics network solutions, stepping beyond the scope of how wireless networks promise to change the manufacturing space for better, enable automotive OEMs to wirelessly gather a wide range of data, from geo location and usage patterns to maintenance needs and performance information.

Through telematics gateways OEMs have the opportunity to track their customers even after the sale of the vehicle! While companies like Huawei have come to offer wireless factory solutions for manufacturing, Rockwell Automation’s industrial automation and control systems, combined with Cisco networking products and services, deliver the expertise and solutions for helping enable secure, smooth connectivity from the plant floor to the enterprise network.

Hard hit by the economic downturn, a US-based automotive manufacturer turned to Rockwell to reduce cost and increase efficiency. Recognizing that its primary plant would need re-tooling to adopt best practices and leaner manufacturing techniques, it implemented the Allen-Bradley Stratix 8000 Switch and Cisco Unified Wireless solutions to support mobile access to data and communications within the plant.

Doing this presents it with the ability to share information between work cells to increase efficiency and reduce costs. With flexible tooling an ongoing trend in the auto industry, the wireless alternative is making even more sense. Every few years, automotive manufacturers move equipment to accommodate new automotive designs. Plant engineers, in case of wireless networks, simply have to power up the sensors. The devices will automatically reconnect with their controllers, without having to go through the identification and pairing processes that is often the case during an installation, or re-installation. By using wireless networks, the plant manager does not need to spend time and money moving and adjusting cabling.

The device will easily find and communicate with its router and controller network. The benefits of going wireless are certain to translate into low maintenance and high levels of flexibility. As automotive manufacturers move towards wireless networks, they are certain to adapt them to areas never before imagined. Such a move will change dra-
matically, the task of manufacturing.

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