Flexible assembly pays off.
Automatic assembly operations are not new to industry. For many years vibratory bowl feeders, component feed tracks, pick-and-place mechanisms, and automatic fastening tools have combined to minimize the cost of assembling components by eliminating costly, tedious manual assembly operations.
Over the years, a great deal of effort has gone into designing and constructing ways to sort, align, track, and precisely feed and fasten components together. Justifying the cost of customized, dedicated tooling used with the traditional electromechanical approach to assembly requires high-volume applications. A change in product design cannot be made without regarding the expense of tooling changes. Yet a lot of ordinary products have been put together over the years in this very efficient manner.
Flexible assembly systems, on the other hand, have stirred the imagination of manufacturing engineers. In last month's issue, we referred to flexible assembly as manufacturing's newest frontier. Among other benefits, use of flexible or programmable assembly automation lends itself to small-batch production and has the potential to accommodate variations in product design economically. The aim is to be able to sort, orient, and precisely feed incoming components in a random manner.
Interestingly, this will be done by copying some human traits that dedicated automation cannot duplicate. It cannot be made to see or feel. With refinements in machine vision, tactile sensing, and robot adaptability, random part feeding and gripping of variations in part shape will offer optimal solutions. Machine vision is applicable to other operations in addition to assembly, but in this field alone the possibilities are striking.
Fascination with theory is one thing, but putting technology to use and making it pay off in dollars is quite another. One US industry that is taking full advantage of robotics and computerized assembly-line techniques is the major household appliance industry. The have shown continued growth in spite of the recent recession, and its executives are planning huge investments in upgrading both product designs and production facilities. Teams of manufacturing and product engineers are cooperating in these efforts. Products are being redesigned to suit new assembly techniques, to improve product quality, and reduce future customer service calls.
Even though US builders of major household appliances have had virtually no foreign competition, an industry spokesman says that any company that doesn't automate operations won't be in business ten years from now. That kind of forward thinking not only makes for a competitive, healthy industry, but gives consumers a break by assuring quality products at a fair price. How refreshing when you consider how few breaks we consumers get.
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|Publication:||Tooling & Production|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1984|
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