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Automation, new technology and keeping your feet on the ground

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On May 5, 1950, Erwin Sick registered his self-formulated ‘light electric gate’ for a patent. The forerunner to Sick’s safety light curtains, the invention was designed to do two things - protect workers from dangerous machinery and increase efficiency.

Fast forward to 2013 and the desire for safety and efficiency has reached levels that Erwin Sick wouldn’t have dreamed of in 1950. (Ever seen photos of New York construction workers taking lunch breaks way up in the sky-line in the 1930s and 40s? Do you think those guys had heard of OHS or ‘Efficiency Experts’?)

The drive for safety and efficiency remains. What has increased almost exponentially is the potential to develop new automation and safety systems. Technology has opened a lot of potential doors to efficiency experts and engineers alike.

So where is automation headed?

“Automation is a big word. It can mean a lot of different things,” National Sales Manager, SICK Australia & New Zealand Jeff Walker told Manufacturers Monthly.

“At Sick, we’re focussed on four things. We talk about flexible automation, quality, track and trace and safety.”

Furthermore, Walker says, the company concentrates its efforts on what he calls ‘three pillars of industry’:

  • Factory automation, encompassing the core business of food and beverage, packaging, print, labelling, etc.
  • Process automation, including industries such as oil and gas, mining and process automation in general.
  • Logistics automation, covering everything from RFID kiosks use for airline check-ins to the automation of internet commerce and the code and traceability solutions required by that industry.
Let’s focus on the first pillar, factory automation.

Factory automation and the need for flexibility

Walker points out that the need for flexibility in automation is driven by the size of the Australian market place.

“Our customers have to have the ability to be flexible in their line. So one line has to be able to package, bottle, fill, and label all different shapes and sizes of product.”

The challenge for Sick is to deliver each customer a dynamic, flexible solution that saves them from the need to constantly have to make manual adjustments to their production lines.

Sick needs to allow them to “dynamically adjust a sensor by changing a program on a PLC to say they are going from a 600 ml bottle to a 400ml (or 300 ml) bottle very easily and quickly,” Walker says.

The equation is simple. This type of flexibility “increases the uptime of the machine, decreases the downtime and therefore increases productivity,” he says.

Thus, an item such as the Lector 620 code reader is designed to be flexible and simple. As a single device, it can read and decode all code types. The customer doesn’t need to change the production line to handle different items.

And it is compact. It can be quickly integrated into a variety of packaging machine IT environments and it opens up a range of analysis and diagnostic possibilities.

The one unit can identify the packaging of all types of non-food goods, including food, beverages, pharmaceutical and cosmetic articles. And it can ensure complete product control and tracking.

The limits of automation

Talk of automation leads naturally to discussion of the limits of automation.

Walker is open to possibilities of technology and says, “....the limitations are only driven by the imagination and sometimes the resources of our customers.”

But he isn’t tempted to follow any science fiction fantasy in his answers. He keeps his focus on the needs of his customers in the real world. “Our customers have a driving need to increase efficiencies, to work on smart manufacturing strategies and continue to grow. So for us it’s a continuing challenge,” he says.

In other words, he doesn’t foresee any automation for its own sake. Any advances are driven by sober business decisions and the goals of efficiency and smart manufacturing.

Sick’s miniTwin light curtains, for example, were designed with smart manufacturing in mind. In this case, innovation was driven by the demand for compact machines.

They offer workers reliable protection from hazardous machinery and are specifically designed for applications in space-constrained areas.

They provide innovative safety solutions for flexible serial production of small batch sizes and for low-level serial production.

miniTwin miniature light curtains are often used in applications where workspaces are designed in more ergonomic ways, requiring workflows to be optimised.

Will we lose jobs to automation?

Walker keeps his feet on the ground when talking about that ‘big word’, automation. He doesn’t overstate the power of technology and he is confident that it doesn’t pose a threat to employment.

He says that, far from wanting to put people out of work, most manufacturers who invest in automation are actually investing in their people.

"By introducing automation, they are up skilling their people and getting them involved in it. What it’s created is opportunities for employers to grow the education, the knowledge and competencies and capabilities of their own people."

Walker is optimistic about the capacity of Australian industry to change. He sees plenty of talent in this country.

"We are blessed with very talented engineers who take on technology at a rapidly growing pace," he says.

"We’re fighting in a global market place and we have to increase our efficiencies....that’s primarily done through smart manufacturing solutions."

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