Taming the Problem Child in Automation | Part 2 of The Problem Child series

Jun 24th, 2021 / vpizzinato

Taming the Problem Child

By: Peng-Sang Cau | VP, LS Emerging Markets and Symphoni™

“Don't believe your engineers. You cannot have high speed and flexibility, so pick one.”

That’s a quote from a CEO of a custom automation company when I told him that my team and I were developing an automation technology that offered speed, precision and versatility. Guess what? I believed my engineers. And together, we developed Symphoni: a revolutionary technology that has tamed the problem child in manufacturing automation.

In part one of this series, I asked a simple question: why has automation in manufacturing evolved in virtually every field, except assembly processes? What makes the assembly line so difficult to automate with pre-engineered solutions? How did assembly manufacturing become the problem child in the first place, and why did we give up on it?

In this second piece of a three-part series, I’m going to show you how we didn’t give up on the problem child—we solved it with Symphoni. But first, we had to overcome the false dilemma between speed and flexibility.

Speed over Flexibility

Most solutions for higher speed assembly applications have been forced to sacrifice flexibility. Traditional continuous motion systems (100+ ppm) and indexing motion systems (30-60 ppm) face these significant drawbacks:

  • The parts being assembled must be round.
  • Highly customized mechanical dials must be designed for each component.
  • The machine rate and the number of assembled components determine the machine’s size and the number of mechanical dials. The higher the speed and number of parts, the more dials and tooling is required—which takes up valuable floor space.
  • The assembly equipment must be retrofitted with new custom design mechanical dials if products or processes change.
  • There is no guarantee that the redesign mechanical dials will fit the existing frame.
  • A new programmable logic controller (PLC) program must be written with such changes.

If a manufacturer expects to produce the exact same products over a machine’s lifetime, or if a business is seeking a short-term solution for a specific project, then these conventional technologies are perfectly viable. However, most companies do not have this luxury. They must innovate. But the slightest variations to a product made in an automated assembly line can be prohibitive, because retrofitting a continuous motion or an indexing motion machine requires a long lead time and excessive cost. Too often, that cost is over 75% of the original investment!

Flexibility over Speed

Automated pallets and robot assembly systems are primarily used for high-mix, low-volume production when flexibility is key to address product variability and components that are not round. Although they offer flexibility, these systems present serious issues that impact the bottom line:

  • In order to maximize a robot’s freedom to function, its workspace must be large, which means more distance covered by the robotic arm, resulting in longer production cycle times and a larger footprint.
  • Robotics are used to address the variable size of products. The arm must therefore be strong and flexible for a wide range of repetitive, force-bearing operations—again, resulting in larger, slower machines.
  • System controls can reduce throughput. Because each operation is independent and sequential, time is wasted due to non-value-added “prep-work” movements to perform a single “sneeze-and-you-miss-it” value-added activity like the actual assembly.

Speed Plus Flexibility

Manufacturers are pivoting to standardized, flexible, automated production technologies in order to quickly react to the market, win new businesses, optimize capital investment, and be more resilient against disruptions such as COVID. However, when automated assembly equipment must operate at higher speeds (30-1000 parts per minute, or ppm), automated assembly solutions have remained elusive. In the current value chain, manufacturers rely on conventional machine builders for one-of-a-kind, engineer-to-order machines to automate the assembly process for a new product or process—and these machines must reduce speed or flexibility in order to give the other.

It’s time for that to change. It’s time for SYMPHONI.

With ATS’s patented Symphoni technology, we have transformed the automated assembly equipment supply chain from engineer-to-order to configure-to-order, with pre-tested, pre-validated, standardized, self-contained, plug-and-play modules that are reconfigurable and rapidly deployable.

Each Symphoni module:

  • Has its own control system that is set up to perform a single task very well.
  • Is controlled by a master e-cam to tell it when to synchronize with other modules and with ATS’s SuperTrak Conveyance™.
  • Is integrated with ATS’s Illuminate™ Manufacturing Intelligence IIoT platform.
  • Can be retooled, reprogrammed, and reconfigured to perform different tasks when the products or processes change on the same shift or five years later.

The core of Symphoni comes down to two components: a patented rapid-speed matching technology (RSM Technology®) and a centralized control methodology that synchronizes each module’s movements to eliminate the non-value-added process between the modules. Like a mechanical cam-driven system, they are electronically geared together by the central control system to perform the value-added process precisely.

In essence, Symphoni allows the system to go really fast where it can, but precise where it must. This configurable, re-deployable, pre-engineered, compact modular design assembly system provides speed, efficiency, precision, agility, and throughput in a single technology.

Symphoni is how we tamed the problem child in manufacturing automation. I had an idea, I listened to my engineers, and together we persisted until we had more than a balance between speed and flexibility—we eliminated the choice altogether. But our groundbreaking work didn’t happen overnight. It all started with the seed of an idea (literally). Learn how we got there in the next and final part of this series.

Want to learn more?