Flexible automation systems: Explained w/ examples

April 30, 2024
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Flexible automation explained

Flexible automation refers to automated systems that can easily adapt to changes. These systems are reprogrammable and reconfigurable, allowing them to produce a variety of parts or products. Many modern manufacturing facilities use flexible automation to increase productivity and efficiency.

How do flexible automation systems work?

Flexible automation systems combine the benefits of automated and manual manufacturing. Let’s take a look at their typical components: 

  • CNC machines cut and shape parts with extreme precision. These machines may be integrated with inspection stations or automated assembly areas to streamline the production process.
  • Robots take on large, repetitive, or plain hard tasks. This can include operating machinery, assembling complex components, or tasks too physically demanding for human workers.
  • Material handling systems, such as conveyors, move parts between different stages of production. Robots often load and unload these systems, ensuring a smooth flow of materials.
  • Central computers orchestrate the entire system. They communicate with machines, control the timing of operations, and ensure everything works in perfect harmony.
  • People play a crucial role in managing the system, maintaining equipment, and performing specialized tasks. This includes overseeing operations, repairing breakdowns, changing tools, and sometimes directly loading or unloading parts.

Flexible automation examples in action

Flex automation is the norm in many industries to improve efficiency and productivity.

Let’s take a look at some major examples.

Auto manufacturing

Most major car companies use flexible automation in their assembly lines. 

Robotic arms are programmed to handle different tasks for installing various components based on the specific vehicle model currently on the line. This allows the factory to produce different models and trims efficiently without needing separate dedicated assembly lines for each product.

Warehouse logistics

Many large warehouses and distribution centers deploy automated storage and retrieval systems that can adapt to the variety of goods being handled. 

Robotic lift trucks and conveyor belts are able to transport pallets and packages of different sizes and weights. Automated cranes retrieve goods from tall racks. 

These flexible systems allow warehouses to scale and expand their operations to meet increased demands, especially for e-commerce order fulfillment.

Electronics assembly

Microchip manufacturing and electronics assembly require extremely precise processes. 

Flexible automation with reprogrammable robots is ideal for tasks like soldering, component installation, and testing. The systems can be reconfigured to produce different circuit boards and electronic devices with minimal downtime.

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The benefits and advantages of flex automation

Flexible automation offers many benefits over traditional fixed automation. 

  • Super cost-efficient. Flex automation systems are highly adaptable, allowing you to produce a variety of products on the same line. This reduces the need for dedicated equipment for each product, lowering capital investment and operating costs.
  • Way more agile than you think. Flex automation lines can be reconfigured quickly to adjust to changes in product design or production volume. This allows companies to respond rapidly to shifts in customer demand or market conditions. Production can be scaled up or down by adding or removing modules and resources.
  • Superhuman quality. Flex automation often incorporates advanced sensors, data collection, and analytics that provide real-time monitoring and control. This helps identify quality issues early and make corrections to avoid defects. The result is higher, more consistent product quality.
  • Higher worker satisfaction. Flex automation reduces repetitive and mundane tasks, allowing human workers to focus on more engaging and higher-level functions like oversight, optimization, and troubleshooting. This helps improve job satisfaction, morale, and retention of valuable employees.

Challenges and considerations for flexible automation systems

Not everything is easy in the world of flexible automation systems. 

Let’s dive into some challenges: 

  • Costs can be steep. Flexible automation systems often have higher upfront costs compared to fixed automation. The programming and sensors required to handle variations in products or processes can be expensive. However, over time, the increased productivity and efficiency usually offset the initial investment.
  • High complexity. Flexible automation systems are way more complex than fixed systems, requiring advanced programming, controls, and sensor technologies to adapt to different conditions. This additional complexity means more opportunities for errors or downtime if not properly designed and maintained. Extensive testing is required to ensure the system can handle all possible scenarios.
  • Change management. Shifting from a fixed to a flexible automation system requires a significant change in mindset and workflow. Employees may need retraining to work with the new flexible technology. Management and engineering teams will need to adjust processes to take advantage of the system’s capabilities.
  • Data management. Flexible automation systems rely on collecting and analyzing data to make real-time adjustments. This requires robust data infrastructure and analytics to handle the large amounts of data and turn it into actionable insights quickly. Data security also becomes ever more important to protect intellectual property and customer information.

Summing up

Flexible automation systems can be complex, but they provide a lot of advantages if implemented correctly. 

The most important part is choosing the right mix of fixed and programmable automation tailored to your production needs. So, start small if you're new to flexible automation, focus on quick changeovers, and make training a priority. 

The payoff? Just faster production times, lower costs, and the agility to respond to changing market demands. Implementing flexible automation takes work, but the rewards of optimized, versatile manufacturing are worth it.

Next steps 

Flexible automation just got easier with RO1! This versatile robotic arm from Standard Bots is designed to adapt to your changing production needs.

  • Automation without the hefty price tag: Get the features you need for flexible workflows at a cost under 50% of competing robot arms
  • Power to handle evolving tasks: RO1's robust arm (with a payload of 18 kg) and precise movements make it ideal for a wide range of jobs, even those with hefty payloads.
  • Safety that promotes flexibility: Work confidently alongside RO1 thanks to its advanced sensors and built-in safety systems.
  • User-friendly for quick changes: RO1's intuitive interface and AI at the same level of GPT-4  lets you reprogram it on the fly, even without coding experience.

See the benefits firsthand with our 30-day risk-free trial. Experience how RO1 streamlines your workflow, with our team ready to support your success.

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