Engineering Challenges: 5 Ways Automation Is The Answer

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Engineers are all too familiar with ever-evolving challenges and pressure to optimize, regardless of their industry or sector.  But when it comes to unlocking efficiencies, transforming workflows, and gaining deeper insights and data, there’s never been a stronger need to innovate. Thankfully, automation and technology advancements are providing new opportunities to deliver enhanced, scalable and sustainable results.

Real Examples of Automation Solving Challenges

In this blog post, we'll take a look at how engineers are solving five different challenges with the help of automation. Spoiler alert: robots, 3D vision and AI are definitely on the list, in addition to more. 

These are just a few examples of how automation is not only helping companies tackle problems effectively but revolutionizing the way businesses work—for the better. 

Read on, or use these links to jump to specific challenges:
Challenge 1: Check all the buttons
Challenge 2: Get past the prototype, fast 
Challenge 3: Optimize workflow without stopping work 
Challenge 4: Stay on target for laser labeling 
Challenge 5: Fix machines before they break

Challenge 1: Check all the buttons

Solution: Collaborative robots
Testing every working part of a product before it leaves the factory is mission-critical in any field, but especially so in electronics. That’s why the engineers at a printed electronics manufacturing company would light up every LED, flip every membrane switch and activate every touch sensor—which added up to a lot of buttons. While this was great for safety, it was taxing on engineers’ and technicians’ hands. However, there was a solution: robotic assistance.

Automate exhibitor Productive Robotics and their OB7 collaborative robot checked all the boxes. It was easy to use. It was dexterous enough to press buttons. And it could work in close quarters with people, ceasing operations if bumped. Technicians could let the OB7 handle button-pushing while they focused on more complex tasks, confident with the knowledge that they were safe alongside their new robot coworkers.

Challenge 2: Get past the prototype, fast

Solution: 3D printing 
Many engineers can attest to how ideas and geometries on a computer screen with virtual prototyping don’t always work how they anticipated in the physical world. And when making a complex part takes time, even with a CNC machine or injection mold, this can mean costly delays. 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) is revolutionizing prototyping and the ability to visualize ideas though—from chocolate to buildings. 

One of the key benefits is that it makes the process far faster, saving time and money. Take Automate exhibitor HP 3D Printing’s Jet Fusion 4200 printer. When a supply chain integration company sought out an innovative materials handling robot solution that could speed up both the development and production of components, they turned to Fast Radius and the HP Jet Fusion 4200 3D Printing Solution. From the rapid manufacturing capabilities and new design freedom, engineers were stunned by the speed and flexibility the machine offered. In less than 20 months, they produced 1,000 prototypes, cut two years off their production cycle and saved $100,000. 3D printing won’t solve every problem, but when it works, it’s a game-changer.

Challenge 3: Optimize workflow without stopping work

Solution: Digital twins
Imagine you run a heavily automated, highly interlinked factory floor. You’ve decided to find new ways to optimize production. The sky's the limit and you’re free to experiment with new layouts, equipment and whatever you like. There’s just one problem: every minute you stop work on the floor costs you money and time. How do you investigate and improve your manufacturing process without stopping work and losing precious time? The answer: a digital twin. 

Digital twins are simulations of physical processes. Using information like OEM specifications and operational data, they can simulate how a machine will operate in various situations. Depending on the software, you might simulate a single servo, or every machine on the floor.

Many companies offer digital twins of their products for customers to use. That includes Automate exhibitor Bosch Rexroth, which gives customers the choice between product type twin (based on general specifications) or a product instance twin (based on the operational data of an actual physical machine). Other companies specialize in twinning entire operations, so clients can see how changes to their infrastructure or practices will affect productivity. In either case, engineers don’t have to risk any unexpected impacts or downtime.

Challenge 4: Stay on target for laser labeling

Solution: 3D vision
Sustainability is on everyone’s minds these days—both because it’s better for the environment and it helps the bottom line. That’s what drove one packaging company to begin labeling food directly on the tray using lasers. The method requires far less plastic than other forms of food labeling. But laser labeling uneven and irregularly shaped grocery items requires perfect precision every time. Plus, you need to be able to adjust the laser’s aim to account for changes in shape and position quickly.

Enter Automate exhibitor AT – Automation Technology. Their C52040CS 3D sensor combined not just speed and accuracy, but also a high resolution measuring width of up to one meter. The packaging company's engineers easily integrated the sensor into their existing system. Now, whatever produce winds up under the sensor's watchful eye is scanned and given a 3D point cloud within milliseconds, enabling the laser to label with perfect accuracy every time. It’s no wonder the client can mark up to 100,000 fruit products per hour.

Challenge 5: Fix machines before they break

Solution: Predictive and prescriptive maintenance through AI
Predictive maintenance uses a machine’s operating data to predict when a component or tool needs repair. It enables smart machines to monitor their performance and condition, identifying when a part is near the end of its operating life or when unseen damage is causing problems. Identifying these performance issues would take humans longer to detect. With predictive maintenance, the pressure is off engineers. They can schedule maintenance or component replacement in advance, minimizing downtime.

Automate exhibitor Siemens Digital Industries takes this even further with prescriptive maintenance. In prescriptive maintenance, an AI assistant uses operational data to optimize its own performance and suggest production tweaks to human technicians. Siemens saw this process in action when AI processed production data to cut down on unnecessary X-ray tests in their circuit board production.

Looking at the latest trends in automation technology, it’s clear that engineers have more solutions at their fingertips than ever before. Solutions that are now accessible for operations big and small across a range of industries. So, if you’re ready to transform the way you work, then come experience the future of automation at Automate 2024, May 6–9 in Chicago, IL.

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