When the first automobile factory assembly lines began mass production in the early 1900s, human workers were involved at every step in the production process. This state remained virtually unchanged until 1961, when a robot dubbed Unimate appeared on the automotive factory floor for die casting handling and spot welding. Today robots are found by the millions in factories, operating autonomously of humans.
To see how factories are becoming increasingly automated, let’s follow the flow of component materials through a hypothetical factory production cycle.
The driverless truck arrives at the loading dock door with a box full of parts. Sensors detect the truck’s presence and alert the factory central computer system. Wireless communications enable the truck to provide identification and the factory central computer system to provide authorization for entry. The door mechanically slides open.
A driverless forklift boards the truck and, one by one, scoops up the pallets, backs out of the truck, returns to the factory floor, steers through the maze of storage racks, and places the pallets in inventory as directed by the factory’s centralized control system.
How far are we from this? Driverless trucks are being tested and are expected to be on the road within a few years. Driverless forklifts, equipped with up to ten cameras for enough situational awareness to navigate through the factory and maneuver safely around obstructions and even people in motion, have attracted the attention of major manufacturers.
Onto the Assembly Line
On command from central control, the forklift takes down a pallet from the storage racks and transports it to an unpacking station. The boxes are ‘depalletized’ and cut open automatically. Robot arms pick up the parts and load them onto the assembly line.
Well, maybe not quite yet. Depalletizers and box opening machines do exist, and of course so do pick and place robots — on the assembly line. An automation gap, it seems, yet exists in the acts of reaching into the open box, extracting components from their packaging, and placing them onto the assembly line.
But that gap probably won’t be around for long, the way things are going.
Robots Rule the Assembly Line
Once the component parts are loaded onto the assembly line, robot arms pick up the parts and orient them into proper position for other robots to commence assembly. Without human intervention, the product is fully assembled.
This is the chapter of the factory automation story that everyone knows. From their humble beginnings in the 1960s, robots have come to rule the assembly line. Today, versatile robot arms can, among other talents, accurately pick and place, weld, screw, bolt, coat and paint.
Inspection and Packaging
The finished product is inspected by machine vision for measurement and quality. After packaging, the package itself is inspected by machine. Product packages are loaded into boxes, and the boxes are loaded by forklift into a driverless delivery truck.
And yes, machines are smart enough to conduct quality inspections. Machine vision technology is already on the factory floor and continuing to improve in quality and functionality.
Oversight and the Human Element
Whatever product is being made, overseeing the automated factory process requires information system hardware for a central control system to communicate management directives. Meanwhile, on-the-floor human supervision — suitably equipped with mobile systems — is still needed to coordinate activities among human workers and robots, anticipate and respond to workflow disruptions, and coordinate the logistics of robot repair and maintenance.
Perhaps someday all factories will run independent of human intervention, but that time is still years away.