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Fully automated factories approach reality

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The promise of remote-controlled automation is finally making headway in manufacturing.

The vision of fully automated factories has already existed for some time now. Customers order online, with electronic transactions that negotiate batch size (in some cases as low as one), price, size and color, and intelligent robots and sophisticated machines smoothly and rapidly fabricate a variety of customized products on demand. In an integrated global enterprise, automated factories are installed anywhere in the world, close to the consumer, providing prompt customer-delivery. Automated factories and processes are too expensive to be rebuilt for every modification and design change—so they have to be highly configurable and flexible. To successfully reconfigure an entire production line or process requires direct access to most of its control elements—switches, valves, motors and drives—down to a fine level of detail.

In the real world, situations constantly arise that call for human intervention. When so-called “automated” machines get thrown off track, or become faulty, experts have to be summoned to step in and troubleshoot the problems. But this expertise is scarce and most often not available when the problems occur.

As machines grow more autonomous, the kinds of things that can go wrong with them become steadily more exotic, complex and hard to diagnose, especially when more than one thing goes wrong simultaneously. Further, because automated processes tend to run more quickly than manual ones, the cost and related ripples of letting an exception go uncorrected for even a few minutes can be very high.

Today, industrial automation—programmable controllers and distributed control systems with remote input/output and supervisory machine interface—is still relatively in the dark ages as far as total automation is concerned. There is still too much dependency on manual supervision, which is usually too slow to correct real-time problems. When a serious situation occurs—such as nuclear accidents like the Three Mile Island incident—thousands of alarms occur at once, and manual intervention is ineffective.

With a typical automated production line, or process control system, unexpected failures cause significant and expensive downtimes while technicians scramble to diagnose and correct problems. For example, in a semiconductor product plant, millions of dollars worth of components can quickly become junk.

By definition, problems arising in automated environments should be detected, diagnosed and fixed “automatically.” To be really effective, automated systems must include predictive and real-time diagnostics, with error-correction that requires little or no manual intervention. Automatic processes and machines must include self-diagnosis and self-correction.

Lights out in Texas

The promise of remote-controlled automation is finally making headway in manufacturing settings and maintenance applications. The original machine-based vision of automation—powerful super-robots without people to tend them—underestimated the importance of communications. Today, this is purely a matter of networked intelligence, now well developed and widely available.

Communications support of a very high order is now available for automated processes: lots of sensors, very fast networks, quality diagnostic software and flexible interfaces—all with high levels of reliability and pervasive access to hierarchical diagnosis and error-correction advisories through centralized operations.

With technology available today, fully automated factories in a truly realistic sense are quickly becoming an accepted fact. The term “lights out” has been used to describe fully automated factories. Human hands never touch the products during the manufacturing process. IBM already has a keyboard assembly factory in Texas that is already totally lights out. A few engineers and technicians are on-site to support the machines producing computer keyboards. People drive trucks up to the factory doors, delivering raw materials and picking up finished products. The factory operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with down time only for scheduled maintenance or repair.

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You may recall the old automation wisecrack, “The fully automated factory of the future employs only one man and a dog. The dog is there to make sure the man doesn’t touch anything, and the man is there to feed the dog.”

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst, commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. [email protected]

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