Rahul Dhinakaran uses the example of the rubber industry to discuss the opportunities and challenges for automation in the Indian industries.
Automation Machinery Design
Design, conception and fabrication of automated and robotic custom-made equipment and industrial equipment.
With newer innovations in automation happening at a never before seen pace globally, industries are looking at automation far more seriously now than at any other point in Indian Industrial history. Industries which have traditionally been highly dependent on manual labour are looking at automation very seriously. There could be a whole pile of reasons for this, rising labour costs, issues with labour unions, processes dependent too much on skilled labour, scarcity of skilled labour, etc.
A good example of an industry suffering from the above problems would be the rubber industry – an industry I choose because most of my limited experience in designing and building automation systems was with the rubber industry; an industry, which makes everything from automobile tyres to tiny oil seals. Processes are highly dependent on labour. Even simple processes like loading and unloading from presses, movement of raw materials from store rooms to press sheds, movement of finished goods from factory to storage sheds are dependent on a huge number of labourers. These are only a small percentage of the zones which are ripe for automation in such industries.
Automation of a process in a modern industry is quite simple considering the sheer amount of off-the-shelf solutions available from manufacturers like FESTO, Allen Bradley, Parker-Hannifin, COGNEX, etc. With reasonable exposure to the solutions available from these giants, automation of a process becomes quite simple.
Now, the real challenge is in providing an automation solution to a process, which has been in place for nearly 50 years. Any process which has been present in a factory for 5 decades tends to have support systems built around it. I am a strong believer that an automation system is not a standalone system like a labourer, it is part of the product being manufactured, i.e., the product design itself needs to accommodate automation. A good example is automation of a pressing a key in the key-way of perfectly round shaft. The press force is around 300 kg. A simple pneumatic press should be able to do it. But positioning the shaft perfectly for the insertion is the challenge. Remember, you cannot go to high end vision and servo solutions simply because the RoI (return of investment) needs to be less than 3 years.
With the system going to replace a single operator there is no way a vision-servo combo is going to be recovered within 3 years. The easiest way is to make a notch in the shaft, in such a way that it doesn't affect its functionality and design a simple switch based positioning system before pressing.
Simple, right? Nope. Convincing the supervisor, middle level management is close to impossible. The fact that product design itself needs to be tweaked considerably to accommodate automation needs to be accepted in a lot of companies.
Another major challenge which arises during automation of decades old processes is the machinery used in the processes. The machinery is, in most cases, of equal age as the factory shed foundation. Which means it was designed and built around manual labour. Even installing modern safety equipment like the OMRON sensor curtain would be a challenge.
A good example would be the decades old curing presses installed in the rubber industries. Curing presses are usually positioned in rows. Now, modern automation systems are very precise. The main and obvious difference between an automation system and a manual labourer is that the automation system doesn't accommodate any variations in the systems it is interacting with. But, the decades old machines installed are not as accurate as their modern equivalents. From their positioning, to their movements during operation they are not designed to interact with any precision automation system. To install, say for example, a single ABB robot on a track to deal with 3 presses would require these presses to be positioned accurately and have their movements designed to accommodate the robotic arm. Even cycle times, from press loading to unloading, would have to be programmed to suit to robot movement.
To design highly customised automation equipment around these challenges is definitely not impossible. But it’s highly risky and fraught with challenges. It would be far more fruitful if the management can accept that automation is the future and if they are serious about automation then their product, machinery and factory need to be designed accordingly. It is not an easy overnight task, I accept that. But this needs to be done as industries who are not into automation will find it difficult to survive and compete with ones who adapt fast in the coming decades.
Pix1: The real challenge is in providing an automation solution to a process, which has been in place for nearly 50 years.
Pix2: To design highly customised automation equipment around these challenges is definitely not impossible.
(Rahul Dhinakaran, Automation Machinery Design COnsultant, helps industries design and build pick and place robots, gantry robotic systems, pneumatic presses/fixtures, hydraulic systems, etc. Rahul works under the banner Kalki Technologies of which he is the founder, designing and building machines since 2004. Email: email@example.com)