Flexible assembly pays off Essay

Flexible assembly pays off



Automatic assembly operations are not new to industry. For many
years vibratory bowl feeders, component feed tracks, pick-and-place
mechanisms, and automatic fastening tools have combined to minimize the
cost of assembling components by eliminating costly, tedious manual
assembly operations.



Over the years, a great deal of effort has gone into designing and
constructing ways to sort, align, track, and precisely feed and fasten
components together. Justifying the cost of customized, dedicated
tooling used with the traditional electromechanical approach to assembly
requires high-volume applications. A change in product design cannot be
made without regarding the expense of tooling changes. Yet a lot of
ordinary products have been put together over the years in this very
efficient manner.



Flexible assembly systems, on the other hand, have stirred the
imagination of manufacturing engineers. In last month’s issue, we
referred to flexible assembly as manufacturing’s newest frontier.
Among other benefits, use of flexible or programmable assembly
automation lends itself to small-batch production and has the potential
to accommodate variations in product design economically. The aim is to
be able to sort, orient, and precisely feed incoming components in a
random manner.



Interestingly, this will be done by copying some human traits that
dedicated automation cannot duplicate. It cannot be made to see or
feel. With refinements in machine vision, tactile sensing, and robot
adaptability, random part feeding and gripping of variations in part
shape will offer optimal solutions. Machine vision is applicable to
other operations in addition to assembly, but in this field alone the
possibilities are striking.



Fascination with theory is one thing, but putting technology to use
and making it pay off in dollars is quite another. One US industry that
is taking full advantage of robotics and computerized assembly-line
techniques is the major household appliance industry. The have shown
continued growth in spite of the recent recession, and its executives
are planning huge investments in upgrading both product designs and
production facilities. Teams of manufacturing and product engineers are
cooperating in these efforts. Products are being redesigned to suit new
assembly techniques, to improve product quality, and reduce future
customer service calls.



Even though US builders of major household appliances have had
virtually no foreign competition, an industry spokesman says that any
company that doesn’t automate operations won’t be in business
ten years from now. That kind of forward thinking not only makes for a
competitive, healthy industry, but gives consumers a break by assuring
quality products at a fair price. How refreshing when you consider how
few breaks we consumers get.