Everything you need to know about automation in logistics

Everything you need to know about automation in logistics

Automating industrial processes today is no longer an optional issue. In this fundamental field for the economy and the development of countries, automation is one of the most important objectives of current companies amid their incessant quest for excellence and competitiveness (especially in the midst of an ever-changing environment.)

What is the automation of industrial processes? Simply put, it is about incorporating elements and technological devices that ensure the control and good behavior of the processes that make up the supply chain and logistics in general. These elements and devices, in theory, should be able to react favorably to both anticipated situations (for which they were programmed, in the first place) as well as contingent situations that may partially or completely ruin a link in the production chain (or even more than that.) Automation is often associated with robotics, as well as advanced software systems that run in real time, which can execute tasks efficiently and unceasingly without the need for human intervention.

Some consider that automation, rather than a simple trend of logistics, is actually a complex field of studies and practices, which has become a specialty in the world of engineering. This specialty covers industrial instrumentation including sensors, control and monitoring systems, field transmitters, and data collection systems (as well as their transmission for further analyses.)

Read also: 7 Crucial stages in the modern Logistics history you should know, by David Kiger

There are different levels of automation in an industrial environment, and the best way to understand their hierarchy is thanks to the concept of the pyramid. In total, there are five levels. The first one, known as field level, includes all the physical devices present in the industry, such as actuators and sensors. At the second level, commonly called control level, there are controlling devices, such as computers. At the next level (supervision,) monitoring, control, and data acquisition systems operate. The fourth level is planning, and there you can find systems of production execution. Finally, at the apex, there are systems of integral management of the entire company.

All the levels are actually interrelated, and that is why a technological improvement in any of them will positively affect the rest and will even demand the updating of the whole structure. Moreover, this is why it is vital to invest also in advanced communication tools to connect the diverse processes of the supply chain.

Automation is a matter that scares people. Since the industrial revolution, the social impact of the replacement of factory workers by machines is a general concern. Many, of course, lose their jobs and this is a natural (and unfortunate) consequence of the constant changes in the world of industry. But this does not mean that a factory can operate without human beings, or even with few of them. In fact, automation processes create new forms of employment, because the machines, computers and software, robots and other elements of the pyramid mentioned above require the monitoring, control, and maintenance of people whose skills are simply irreplaceable. Calibrating a machine, maintaining the electrical system of a certain area of the production plant, or repairing computers, for example, are tasks that machines can’t do yet, and it may take a long time for them to do so. Technicians, in fact, play a fundamental role in the production processes, and for that reason, all industries need to invest both in the automation of their production processes, as well as in the effective training of their technicians and operators. Adapting to present and future industrial reality is impossible without the adequate knowledge and tools.

Image courtesy of Mitch Barrie at Flickr.com

There are basically three ways to develop automation in modern industry. The first form is known as fixed automation. In this system, the sequence of the processing operations is determined by the configuration of the equipment. Fixed automation usually involves a high initial investment in the equipment previously designed under specific requirements, as well as the high production rates that demand these improvements and the lack of flexibility to accept product changes.

Programmable automation is the second form. It is one in which there are possibilities to change the sequence of operations and thus adapt to different configurations of products. The sequence of operations is controlled by a set of coded instructions so that the system can read and interpret them. New programs are prepared and introduced to the equipment when new products are to be produced.

Finally, flexible automation is an extension of programmable automation: Thanks to this one, a variety of products can be manufactured with virtually no loss of time for changes between one product and the next. There is no lost production time while the system is reprogrammed and the physical preparation is changed. As a result, the system can produce multiple combinations and product schedules, rather than requiring them to be done in separate batches.

I hope this information is useful for you.

Recommended: Warehouse Automation: The Next Generation

* Featured Image courtesy of machu. at Flickr.com

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