What is fixed automation? Examples, pros & cons

April 9, 2024
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What is fixed automation?

Fixed automation, also known as “hard automation” refers to automated equipment that is installed permanently in a fixed location and designed to perform a specific processing task repeatedly. 

If you’re having trouble picturing it, just think of the massive assembly lines used to produce vehicles — that's fixed automation for you.

The main features of fixed automation: 

  • Designed for high-volume production: These systems excel in environments where large quantities of identical products need to be manufactured.
  • Pre-programmed sequences: The equipment is programmed with specific instructions that dictate the exact order and nature of the task it performs.
  • Hardware components: Mechanical actuators, sensors, controllers, and human-machine interfaces (HMIs) that physically perform the task and enable operator interaction.
  • Software components: Control programs, data logging software, and potentially supervisory software that dictate operations, analyze data, and manage the system within a larger facility.

How is fixed automation different from other types?

Fixed automation is definitely different from other types of automated systems, like programmable and flexible automation in that it’s designed to do a specific, unchanging task repeatedly — pretty much until the wheels fall off.

So, once installed, fixed automation can’t be easily adapted or reconfigured. As a result, it’s better suited for high-volume production of standardized goods.

Examples of fixed automation across industries

As you’ve probably gathered, fixed automation is already widely in use across a tremendously large range of industries. 

Here are some fixed automation examples.

  • All sorts of manufacturing. Fixed automation is very commonly used in manufacturing and assembly lines, especially in industries like automotive, electronics, and food processing.

    In car manufacturing, fixed automation assembles major components like engines, transmissions, and chassis with high speed and precision. 

    Meanwhile, electronics companies employ automated assembly lines to produce everything from smartphones to televisions.

    Also, many popular snack foods and beverages are made using fixed automation, like potato chips, candy, and bottled drinks.
  • Handling materials and packing things up with the best of ‘em. Warehouses and distribution centers rely heavily on fixed automation for sorting, packing, and shipping products. Conveyor belts transport goods between workstations, and robotic arms pick and place inventory onto pallets for storage or shipping. 

    Automated packaging
    equipment like box erectors, fillers, sealers, and labelers handle the entire packaging process for many companies.
  • Keeping a superhuman eye on things. Fixed automation is useful for consistent, high-volume quality control testing. Automated optical inspection systems scan products for flaws using better-than-human computer vision. 

    Also, automated test equipment evaluates the performance and functionality of electronic components like computer chips.

    Finally, food processing plants use metal detectors, X-rays, and other sensing equipment to detect contaminants in raw materials and finished goods — ensuring you don’t end up having GI reflux from that can of Coke.

Advantages of fixed automation

Fixed automation offers several excellent benefits for many manufacturing and industrial applications.

Let’s take a look: 

Fixed automation is highly efficient since the equipment is designed to perform a specific task with extreme speed and the highest levels of repeatability. So, once the process is set up, it can operate continuously without breaks at a fast, consistent pace. The result? High throughput and productivity.

Fixed automation systems are typically very reliable. Since they have a limited range of functions, fewer components can malfunction or break down. They’re also designed to handle high volumes over a long lifespan. This means that, with regular maintenance, fixed automation can provide years of uninterrupted service.

Although fixed automation requires a large initial capital investment, it becomes very cost-effective over the long run. Labor costs go way down because human operators aren’t required to oversee or control the equipment. Meanwhile, the energy usage can also be optimized for maximum efficiency.

The high throughput and minimal downtime mean a quick return on investment — just 1-3 years! 

Fixed automation is a godsend for tasks that require a high degree of precision, quality, and consistency. The automated equipment is programmed to perform the exact same steps the exact same way every single time. This results in a standardized process and output that rarely varies. Products are produced uniformly at a predictable rate with minimal defects or errors. Quality control is also simplified — there are fewer variables in the system.

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Limitations and challenges of fixed automation

Yes, fixed automation has some downsides to be aware of. Since the systems are designed for highly specific tasks, they lack flexibility. Once installed, the configuration of a fixed automation system is difficult and expensive to change. 

So, if your production needs change, the system may need major overhauls or even total replacement to adapt. A major headache! 

Here are the most important limitations of fixed automation to address head-on before you invest in a system: 

  • Not flexible in the slightest. Fixed automation is great when you have a standardized process that rarely changes. However, if you need to frequently adjust or modify your assembly line to produce different products, fixed automation will slow you down. The systems are designed to do the same repetitive 24/7/365.

    But they can’t easily handle product variations or short production runs. You’ll be stuck with the same fixed equipment whether you need it or not.
  • Be prepared to pay a lot out of pocket. While fixed automation reduces labor costs over the long run, the initial investment in equipment can be quite expensive. custom designing and installing these complex systems requires a major capital investment that may take years to pay off. 

    Unsurprisingly, this can be a major hurdle for some companies, especially small manufacturers. If demand for your product drops unexpectedly, you could end up with an idle assembly line and a hefty price tag.
  • With fixed automation, your productivity is dependent on the functioning of the equipment. If any part of the system breaks down or needs repair, your entire assembly line could grind to a halt

    Maintenance and repair of these sophisticated machines require specially trained technicians and expensive spare parts. Any unplanned downtime can cost you in lost production time, reduced output, and revenue.

Summing up

Let’s recap: Fixed automation is all about using specialized machines to repeatedly do the same tasks over and over. 

And, while it lacks flexibility, fixed automation can't be beat for efficiency and precision when it comes to high-volume, low-variety production.

But it’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and daisies: Its rigid nature makes changeovers extremely difficult and costly, so you've got to be sure the product or process you're automating will have a long, stable lifecycle. 

Still, when applied wisely to the right situations, fixed automation will enable companies to maximize throughput and slash costs

Now you know the ins and outs, you can determine if fixed automation is the right fit for your operation.

Next steps

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Our experts are with you every step of the way to guarantee a smooth transition and maximize the return on your RO1 investment. See it for yourself with our 30-day risk-free trial!

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