Automation trends: From big factories to small shops

Once the domain of giant, high-volume manufacturing plants, automation is showing up in job shops, mid-sized producers, and even design studios.

May 14, 2015

Manufacturing automation has come a long way since 1961, when General Motors installed the first Unimate die-casting mold robot on an assembly line.

  • Robots are now more complex, powerful, easier to program, and significantly less expensive
  • Machine tools have become smarter, generating real-time data that plant managers can use to improve build processes
  • Job shop operators have realized that, unlike a decade ago, modern automation systems can increase flexibility

The digital revolution that places inexpensive smartphones with more computing power than the Apollo Program in the pockets of teenagers is also lowering the costs to automate production in any sized operation.

This automation special report explores how shops, big and small, benefit from advances in robotics; explains how modern machine-management systems can generate data to optimize production; analyzes how small shops can gain an edge by automating processes; details several innovative applications of new technology; and examines how automation principles are extending beyond the shop floor to the design world.


Machine monitoring enables manufacturing profits and productivity to take off

By David McPhail

Call it the Internet of Things, the Industrial Internet, Industry 4.0, or Machine2Machine (M2M) Connectivity – whatever the name, it’s changing the face of communications from the shop floor where things are made to the top floor where decisions are made. The goal is to make factories more flexible and competitive by using Internet connectivity to collect real-time productivity data from various machines operating across the plant, and then maximizing opportunities for improvement.

The aerospace sector is a leader in recognizing the value of productivity upgrades. A U.S. Congressional Research Service report in January 2012 notes that United States aerospace manufacturing output increased by 21% between 2000 and 2011 while overall U.S. manufacturing output decreased by 3%. Investing in new manufacturing equipment was a key reason for the improved productivity.

In its 2014 report, The Internet of Things, Goldman Sachs forecasts factory floor optimization will lead the efficiency side of a world where 28 billion things are connected. Combine that with Frost and Sullivan’s Manufacturing Leadership Group and its 2015 Manufacturing Trends to Watch report that states the Industrial Internet trend will expand as firms “recognize the need to drive transformation faster to maintain and improve global manufacturing competitiveness and sustain economic growth.”

Connected devices provide businesses with a new value stream. Memex Automation develops, sells, and supports real-time technologies that power the Industrial Internet. Memex’s MERLIN provides overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) metrics in real-time to allow manufacturers to increase machine utilization. MERLIN is a manufacturing execution system (MES) that enables companies to see the productivity and increased profitability with dashboard metrics that are available for the entire shop floor. OEE, plus direct numerical control (DNC) hardware and software, assists a company to function at its best. 

Features include production data collection, downtime and reject cause analysis, labor productivity tracking, usage-based preventative maintenance, visual production scheduling, connecting production floor to ERP, and assessing operator productivity.

MERLIN customers typically increase machine utilization from 10% to 50%. Plants using MERLIN are able to improve output by more than 10% and related income from operations by as much as 60%. MERLIN connects machines across the plant using the MTConnect open, royalty-free interoperability standard as well as other protocols such as Fanuc Focas and OPC.

Rather than offering custom services installation for every client, Memex Automation’s M2M packaged toolkit relies on MTConnect-based hardware and software that do not require programming or setting up of PLCs. The MES leverages the company’s existing investment in plant, equipment, and enterprise software.

Magellan Aerospace

With more than 60 years of experience in producing components for supersonic jet fighter aircraft from its plant in Kitchener, Ontario, Magellan Areospace Corp. was faced with a machine information puzzle when three machines, engineered to meet contracted volumes, appeared insufficient. The Magellan team used MERLIN to uncover the root causes of machine stoppages and other performance issues.

“Downtime events were reduced from 400 hours per month to 100 hours, which is a net increase in machining capacity of 100 hours per month per machine,” says Magellan continuous improvement coordinator Jonathan Ung. “We captured real savings of over $30,000 per month against an initial price of $20,000 for MERLIN.”

Ung adds that on one machine, “We were able to more than double machining time. It was so much of a gain that it was surreal at first, with experienced operators very surprised to see the results.”

After implementing corrective actions identified by MERLIN, Ung’s plant reached a sustained overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) of 85%+ from 36%.

Ung explains that 85%+ is considered world class, and “there was surprise among our team and customers that we reached that number so quickly. It also swayed everyone to believe that MERLIN provided a very effective solution.”

Ung next wants to tie into his plant’s CINCOM enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to track shop orders, labor booking, and labor hours; add MTConnect to make it easier for MERLIN to get and read data; and add a DNC solution that will allow operators to remotely and simultaneously upload and download multiple CNCs and files.


Memex Automation

About the Author: David McPhail is president and CEO of Memex Automation Inc., makers of MERLIN software, and can be reached at



Robotics driving automation talks

Falling prices, the need for flexibility, and simplified programming systems are making robotics very popular with companies that want to increase productivity.

By Robert Schoenberger

Whether it’s a small shop hoping to flex quickly between different sized workpieces or a production factory that needs to boost output without adding floor space and staff, the most common answer these days is robotics, according to sales and integration specialists at Evana Automation.

Headquartered in Evansville, Indiana, Evana designs automation for aerospace, automotive, energy, and medical companies, integrating robotics and systems into customized systems. Company officials say the vast majority of inquiries they get have been for robotically driven, automated manufacturing.

“Robotics provide a lot of flexibility; they can be easily re-programmed and re-tooled for the next model,” says Todd Breault, director of sales. Nationwide, robotics sales jumped 19% to $1.6 billion as manufacturers invested to meet growing demand in several industries and as lower prices made systems more affordable, according to data from the Robotic Industries Association.

Evana’s business development manager Oscar Ford says that while robots are flexible and useful, he advises companies to be careful about how and where to use them.

“Robots can accomplish highly repeatable tasks or tasks that require people to do activities like visual inspections,” Ford says. “Those sorts of activities take away from using people for their intellectual abilities and for decision making.” 

Careful use of new systems, says Evana General Manager Randy Wire, means starting with a full understanding of the costs of an automated system and realistic expectations for the productivity and cost gains a company can realize.

“Robot prices continue to show improvement in value vs. capability, but the robot alone is not the sole cost driver,” Wire says. “Integration of the entire package – tooling, sensors, and safety systems – will add significantly to the total cost of the robotic work cell.”

Wire adds that many people underestimate costs such as programming time and supporting the system after installation. Integrators work closely with companies to educate them on startup costs, operational costs, and automation benefits.

“Smaller manufacturers face the same constraints as always – it’s difficult to justify a high total initial cost, and they struggle with internal support,” Wire says. “The rewards are improved production capacity, improved quality, and more flexibility. If we can get companies to look longer term, past that initial investment, the benefits are there.”

Ford adds that it’s also important to consider indirect, long-term benefits – primarily data collection. Robots and automation equipment are computer driven, generating data on line speeds, equipment utilization rates, and materials consumed.

“More data can translate into flexible and more-efficient production,” Ford says. “So more automation and the increasing affordability of robots are creating new options for manufacturers.”


Trends in robotic programming

Robotics producers have simplified programming, and in the case of collaborative robots, created machines that can be taught by workers on the assembly line instead of programmed on a computer. Officials with Evana Automation discuss some of the programming trends.

Simplified controls/programming
For simple tasks, a few manufacturers offer alternatives that can simplify programming. However, robot programming is still complex. At least as much time is spent on error-proofing and recovery as on the actual task. 

Integrating sensors, cameras, and end effectors, and installing a robust safety system can be daunting tasks. 

It is important to pick an integrator with experience who understands the challenges and has demonstrable integration success. It is also important that the end user has the staff and training needed to support the systems once installed.

– Randy Wire,
Evana general manager

Collaborative robots
Designed to be simple to use and work right alongside employees without enclosures or safety cages, collaborative robots have specific safety concerns that deserve careful consideration from both the manufacturer and the integrator.

– Oscar Ford,
Evana business development manager


Evana Automation

About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of TMV and can be reached at or 216.393.0271.



Automating design

Optimizing access to CAD files and streamlining processes can increase the value of those drawings and allow better use of data investment.

By Carl Smith

Storing data without specific management rules or processes is a missed opportunity. Once limited to the shop floor, automated, lean practices permeate every department. These Golden Rules for streamlining engineering through automation can reduce overhead, leaving more time for innovation.

Encourage innovation, eliminate drudgery
Regardless of the file type – CAD files, office documents, or scanned images – it is critical provide a secure storage space and a process to control the file life cycle status, history, and availability. Assembling critical data assets in a single repository can contribute significantly.

A typical designer can waste hours every day simply searching for files and recreating data that already exists. Examining workflows will reveal opportunities to automate repetitive, non-value-add tasks so that engineers and designers can be productive and innovative.

Day-to-day clerical tasks can inhibit engineers from innovating new designs. Non-automated bill of materials (BOM) creation requires engineers to generate, correlate, and organize data by hand. Automation, via advanced software tools, removes that drudgery.

Be generous
Opening up access to data can eliminate time-wasting tasks. For example, allowing customers to configure and design products via a sales-to-order environment can automate data entry by generating submittal drawings, design requirements, and BOM data. That data can then integrate with enterprise resources planning (ERP) systems.

A secondary benefit is increased collaboration. A good data management solution promotes cross-pollination of ideas among designers and other stakeholders with input on a real-time basis.

Preserve intellectual property
As baby boomers retire, manufacturers hope to pass on the knowledge of those engineers to new designers. Automated data management can protect engineering assets and transfer knowledge to the next generation. With history associated to designs, next-generation designers will better understand past design decisions, what the impact was, and who the decision makers were.

IMAGINiT Technologies

About the Author: Carl Smith is manufacturing solutions manager for IMAGINiT Technologies, a provider of training, software solutions, and services for Autodesk in North America. He can be reached at



Universal Robots: tabletop collaborative system

Edited by Eric Brothers

Universal Robots’ UR3 compact tabletop robot weighs 24.3 lb and has a payload of 6.6 lb, 360° rotation on all wrist joints, and infinite rotation on the end joint.

“Tabletop automation is easy, safe, and flexible,” says Universal Robots co-founder and CTO Esben Oestergaard. “A single worker can accomplish what traditionally would be a two-person task by having the UR3 robot as a third-hand helper.”

Universal designed the UR3 for assembly, polish, glue, and screw applications requiring uniform product quality. Other functions include picking, assembling, and placing parts in optimized production flows.

“A big demand driver will be automating production in confined environments,” Oestergaard says. “We can now fit a 6-axis robot into more assembly and manufacturing lines where erecting large safety enclosures would not be feasible.”

Universal Robots



Automated machine loading, part picking

FANUC’s iRVision 3DA/400 area sensor enables new robotically driven features.

Edited by Robert Schoenberger

FANUC is expanding its robotics and automation technology for automotive machine tool load/unload applications with the introduction of the high-speed iRVision 3DA/400 area sensor, a solution for loading/unloading randomly located small- to medium-size parts from a bin into a machine tool. FANUC’s high-speed 3D area sensors provide a detailed 3D map of a bin of randomly-oriented parts in one quick vision shot.

The vision tool allows bin picking setup through the iPendant in a matter of minutes. Designed for use with a small- or medium-size robot with smaller containers measuring less than 400mm x 300mm x 300mm, the sensor is available in two variants – the 3DA/1300 for a wider range of view, and the compact 3DA/400 for small- to medium-size applications. Both models are equipped with a higher-resolution mode for greater 3D location precision.

FANUC America Corp.

For more information
To see a video of a FANUC LR Mate 200iD robot using the iRVision 3DA/400 Area Sensor, visit



Robotic riveting for Boeing 777 wide-body fuselage assembly

The robotic pulse line uses guided KUKA robots equipped with end effectors manufactured by another KUKA company, Alema Automation, to do the riveting currently performed by workers using handheld tools. The robots will work on the forward and aft sections, installing 60,000 fasteners.

Pre-assembled and integrated at KUKA Systems in Sterling Heights, Michigan, FAUB has undergone final phase testing and production readiness in a Boeing facility in Anacortes, Washington.

“This is a signature project for us, being able to join forces with such a global leader as Boeing,” says Robert Reno, group vice president, aerospace at KUKA Systems. “Bringing KUKA’s manufacturing and automation expertise to the aerospace sector is helping our customers realize important economies and efficiencies from technology that also delivers unsurpassed quality.”

Automated riveting

  • Company – Boeing
  • Product – 777X twin-aisle passenger jet
  • Challenge – Precisely and quickly installing 60,000 fasteners per fuselage
  • Solution – Fuselage Automated Upright Build (FAUB)
  • Manufacturer – KUKA Systems Aerospace Group

KUKA Systems



Automation for lower volume parts

By John B. Lucier

The automation industry has already proven how effective it is at making 1 million parts, but what if a shop’s need is far less? What if you’re not a Tier 1 manufacturer, but a smaller manufacturing or contract shop and don’t need that many parts? Does that mean robotics are not an option? Absolutely not. Automation is being used for lower volume parts – low volume/high-mix – and by applying many techniques already being used in machining, smaller shops can become automated.

Articulating robots were developed for the automotive industry and integrated into automation cells designed for making millions of parts. These cells are impressive; however, their success gave the illusion that automation only involved large volumes.

Low volume/high-mix solutions
Low volume/high-mix is the up-and-coming trend in automation. Articulating arm robots can be outfitted in many ways. How a robot and the surrounding automation system is outfitted determines its best use.

The medical industry could become the poster child for this type of automation. In parts such as hip, knee, and elbow replacements, several machined components are offered in a variety of sizes. Lot sizes average only 5 to 10 pieces.

With just-in-time manufacturing increasing in popularity, other industries are looking for cost-effective and time saving automation solutions. One trend is job shop automation, where the owner often doesn’t know what jobs will be running from week to week. How does one configure an automation system without knowing what work is coming?

The answer is an automation system that can be set-up and changed-over quickly in response to incoming work.

A job shop with a cell designed to handle a low volume of many different parts, or a whole family of parts on short notice, demonstrates the flexibility of using an automation solution.

A popular job shop option is a powered conveyor with adjustable lane guides. In large volume manufacturing, the incoming parts tend to be near-net shape materials, but in a job shop the incoming material is usually cut-up bar stock. The geometric shapes of the standard bar stock work well with the conveyor and adjustable lane guides.

Getting a grip on programming
In machine tool loading, end of arm tooling (EOAT) is dominated by pneumatic grippers. Gripper fingers that get changed for different parts are just simpler versions of a chuck jaw and can be made and remade right in the job shop.

When programming robots to do these types of jobs, examine the robot sequence for the pick-up and load points that will change. A teach program will move the robot through the sequence, allowing for easy re-teaching of those points. While this method allows someone to easily re-teach points in this prewritten sequence, for true flexibility, there is no substitute for knowing how to program the robot. In the past, this task was left to robot programmers, but today, many shops don’t have these programmers. However, anyone who programs a machine tool is generally familiar with programming, and almost every robot company has training available. Machine tool programs and robot programs have different syntax, but the overall thought process is the same.

Comparing the tasks operators perform for a machine versus a robot, robots have much easier tasks. The cell layout can affect the ease with which a cell and the machine tool can be changed-over for different jobs. Knowing where to place the robot to access the machine will improve overall efficiency.

The technology to make an automation system effective for low-volume parts is available. It is just a matter of outfitting the robot with this technology and changing your way of thinking. The applied technology is similar to that of quick-change machining. Overall, automation in low-volume/high-mix operations can save companies significant time and money.

Methods Machine Tools Inc.

About the author: John B. Lucier is an automation manager with Methods Machine Tools Inc. and can be reached at 978.443.5388.