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Choosing The Right Equipment For A Flexible Automation Cell

With so many different suppliers, machines, and setups, you want to make sure that whatever decision you make, it’s a comprehensive one – one that ticks all the boxes for your manufacturing plant and one that can secure a more productive and efficient future. 

Automation can provide relief to manufacturers looking to subvert the ongoing labor shortage, but it can also be confusing when it comes to the initial implementation of an autonomous robotic system. One of the first things you need to know when setting one up is if it’ll be a fixed or flexible automation system. Once you’ve established that, it’ll then be the time to figure out what kind of equipment you’d need to better serve your factory. 

With so many different suppliers, machines, and setups, you want to make sure that whatever decision you make, it’s a comprehensive one – one that ticks all the boxes for your manufacturing plant and one that can secure a more productive and efficient future. 

Fixed Vs. Flexible Automation

When you decide to automate, the work in which you automate will fall into one of two types of automation: fixed or flexible. For example, if your business is focused on the assembly of the same pieces over and over again at a high volume, you’d be more inclined to try a fixed automation system. However, if your factory is High-Mix, fixed automation won’t exactly work.

What is “High-Mix” Manufacturing? It is generally defined as any manufacturer or production that processes more than 100 different SKUs in batches of fewer than 1000 each year – basically, a lot more variation than mass manufacturing.

ABB Robotics unveiled their latest look into flexible automation cells at Automatica 2022. Image via ABB.

If the pieces you manufacture fit the High-Mix description, then the type of automation you’re going to need is called flexible automation. In short, fixed automation will serve a single purpose at a high rate, and flexible automation will help serve multiple pieces at a lower volume.

Preparing yourself for a fixed automation system is more straightforward than a flexible automation system even if it’s more limited. Preparing yourself for flexible automation is a little bit more complicated, but with the right research and understanding, the extra effort will be far more fruitful. 

Let’s say you have a High-Mix production and you’re looking to install the perfect flexible automation cell, what exactly do you need to ensure that your cell is as comprehensive and complete as possible?

The Right Equipment for a Flexible Automation Cell

Flexible automation systems aren’t always cut-and-paste. Some serve different purposes. While some automation cells will fit the traditional need of having a robot perform certain tasks until completion, other cells will simply be a stackable storage system that will help organize the inventory to help get end products to customers faster. Considering the differences in systems, not every piece of equipment listed below will be useful to every specific flexible automation system. Depending on what type of cell you’re looking into, the following pieces may help bring a greater understanding as to what you may need or want when setting up your flexible automation cell.


The Robot

Automatic industrial robotic robot working, industry 4.0 and technology concept
A robot arm, while not vital, can help accelerate the production process thanks to mature AI software.

Technically, robots are not always central to flexible automation. However, they can greatly help because they are more articulated and versatile tools than other pieces of equipment for flexible automation such as large rail inventory systems. Due to their restrictive nature, it’s easier to turn to an autonomous robot with powerful AI alongside it. Sometimes, this will require the robot to be programmed with the help of a capable robotics software like ROS. Other times, you may want to remove programming altogether and get behavior-powered software that will allow the robot to learn about the parts it will work on and execute each task for each individual piece properly and efficiently.

These processes don’t even have to be all the same. You can alternate between painting, sandblasting, deburring, and more if you need to. There exists a myriad of options that will help you get a robot. Companies like FANUC, Universal Robots, and Yaskawa all have a deep catalog of robots that can meet your needs.

Omnirobotic’s AutonomyOS™ is the world’s only platform for truly autonomous manufacturing. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that reduce labor shortages, increase productivity, save energy, waste and rework and allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.

The Cameras

Cameras, sensors, and localization are not necessarily essential tools for flexible automation, however they provide one benefit that makes installing them worthwhile. By installing any of these, you will eliminate the need for programming jigging.

With a proper set of cameras and/or sensors, the robots will be able to properly perceive any piece that passes through them. Once those pieces have been reconstructed digitally, an autonomous robot can then understand how to perform an action. If you’re setting up cameras and sensors, however then that likely means you need objects to pass through them to the robot.

The Material Handling

If the pieces you need to work on need to pass through cameras, then your flexible automation cell will need a conveyer of some sort. While there are a myriad of conveyor options to choose from, you’d need to determine which, based on the space you have, properly fit your factory floor. The conveyor isn’t the most glorious or most coveted piece of equipment but it’s a necessary one to facilitate the process.

The Space

Okay, space isn’t quite a piece of equipment, but having a large area to work with is certainly helpful to the cause. Depending on the system you have, the space you would need would vary. If you only have space for a small conveyer belt, a couple of cameras, and a robot, your flexible automation system could work, but be limited in what it can execute in a day.

Sprimag, a company focusing on automated coating systems, detailed what their coating cell would look like. Based on their mockup, you can that it’s a long one. They have a large amount of space, but it allows the system to go through several different stations. The robot, more or less placed in the center, has enough room to move around without risking a collision with any of its surrounding walls.

The cell’s loop-like structure will reduce the floor space necessary for material handling. Its versatility in regards to size is the flexible automation cell’s biggest advantage here. With an easy-to-place design, it won’t restrict the other essential parts of the factory.

Choosing The Right Equipment For A Flexible Automation Cell
Sprimag's flexible automation cell isn't overwhelmingly big and it allows for a streamlined process thanks to multiple stations.

Another Flexible Automation Cell Example

Manufacturing company Liebherr detailed a rotary loading system that allows a robot to pick and place objects in a circular cell. In a detailed account of what this system entails, Liebherr states that “the individual workpieces lie in these bins in chaotic order. The core of the Liebherr bin picking system is an intelligent piece of software that compares data from 3D visualization of the bin contents with the actual CAD data of the workpieces being searched for and detects the correct parts.”

For a system like this, you would need more than just the robot, cameras, and conveyer. You would also need an intricate storage system that will work in conjunction with the aforementioned pieces of equipment. What might seem like a disorderly mess is actually a fully functioning system for the robot and for the flexible automation cell itself.

Why Is Flexible Automation So Important and Popular Right Now?

The uptick in flexible automation can be associated with several points. For one, there’s been a trend toward mass customization in manufacturing. As more manufacturers deal with High-Mix environments, their pieces aren’t always homogeneous and benefit from the flexibility that automation can provide. High-Mix manufacturers need flexibility to use automation properly for their needs.

As automation evolves and matures, the industry is expected to leave a smaller environmental footprint. With sustainability becoming a larger focal point for manufacturers, it’s important to realize just how much automation can benefit both manufacturers and the environment.

As well, with space being such a scarce commodity in manufacturing, it’s important to make the best use out of whatever space is available in any given factory. As zoning restrictions tighten up, saving space becomes the best and most efficient way to not have to change locations. With the right flexible automation cell, using the least amount of space to achieve the most amount of work is the simplest solution. Sprimag and Liebherr have managed to do it, so maximizing space is certainly within reach.

Cost Effectiveness of Autonomation
Valin Corporation showed the overall cost effectiveness of a flexible automation system versus a fixed automation system.

Different Equipment for Different Needs

Not every flexible automation system is universal, naturally. Each cell will be tailored to each company’s needs, therefore, leading to a myriad of different equipment configurations. With companies like Sprimag and Liebherr detailing what their ideal flexible automation cells will look like, their needs aren’t their peers’ needs. It’s vital to assess the type of automation and choose the right equipment to go with it.

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, your flexible automation cell will be as powerful as ever. With the ability to set up behaviors to execute tasks such as paint spraying, sanding, welding, and more, you’ll find all the flexibility you want for your manufacturing needs. Contact us to learn more

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