The field of automation covers multiple disciplines with mechanical engineering, electrotechnology and information technology as the main ones. Automation can be completely virtual or it can require electromechanical components to function. Automation can be very complex and extensive but in most cases it has a simple basis. In this article, we provide an overview of automation examples from low to high level of complexity that illustrates the spectrum of automation design possibilities.
At its most basic level, an automated system consists only of an actuator. The actuator can be a motor, a pump, a lamp or other. In our example, the actuator is represented by the heating element that warms up the production unit (Level 1). The process of heating is continuous and controlled by a human operator. If we add a temperature sensor (Level 2), an operator will be able measure the temperature of the unit and switch on or off the heating element, as production requires it. We can also let this function be automatically performed by a programmable logic controller or a computer (Level 3). With local communication (Level 4), the controller can also send a signal to another system (for example, a fan) in order to cool down the unit whenever necessary. At this level, a wide range of tasks including assembly, welding, painting and (un)loading of heavy or hazardous materials and so on can be added to the system and realized via machines and robots. If any part of or this whole system is connected to a network (Level 5), the production process can be monitored and influenced externally. Moreover, the network can connect manufacturing or other related functions including production planning and control, shop floor control, quality control, computer-aided manufacturing and design, purchasing and marketing. These data would allow factory operators to run the factory in a more efficient manner by making changes in product design faster, reducing costs and optimizing production.
As an automated production system becomes more complex and includes more technology, it requires more investment. It is important to understand that even a basic lower-cost system allows to reap benefits from increased productivity. When looking for a production automation solution, it is important to set clear production objectives. This helps to avoid unnecessary system complexity and make optimal investments.
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