Hard vs. Flexible Automation

by: Andrew L. Shakely, PE, LEED AP BD+C | NuTec Design Associates, Inc., President

Automation is key to the resurgence of manufacturing in the United States. There are many types of automation available to companies today, and understanding what type is best for your business is key to making the most out of your investment. Most people categorize three main types of automation: Hard or Fixed Automation, Soft or Programmable Automation, and Flexible Automation.

Hard Automation
Hard Automation is a robot or machine that is designed to perform a specific, highly repetitive task. The task is usually simple operation or a combination of simple operations. Because it handles straight-forward operations and has been designed and customized for the specific task at hand, Hard Automation usually represents the lowest first-cost option. The other advantage is that it typically operates at very high speeds and can thus outperform human output. The downside to Hard Automation is that it is not flexible. It is not designed to accommodate a variety of tasks or setups. Modifying Hard Automation can be costly and time-consuming. It is ideal for high volume, low variability work. If you require production that needs to be flexible and accommodate product updates or new products, Hard Automation is not a good choice.

Soft Automation
Soft or Programmable Automation is the more developed cousin to Hard Automation. It includes equipment that has been designed to accommodate a variety of product configurations. Its operation is controlled by a computer, which can be reprogrammed to adjust its operation for different products. Setup of the equipment for a product changeover may be as simple as running a different input program or it may also include some mechanical adjustments to the equipment. The added flexibility causes the first cost of this equipment to be higher than Hard Automation and it typically operates at lower speeds. If you have facility that manufactures a limited range of similar products that are run in batches, Soft Automation may be your best choice.

Flexible Automation
As the name suggests, Flexible Automation is a robot or equipment that has been designed to easily change the production line for a variety of product mixes or for new products. It typically includes a robotic arm capable of five or six axis movements with interchangeable heads that can perform a variety of tasks. A series of sensors and program logic control the robot’s actions. Because of the flexibility in movements possible, the range of sensors available, and the ability to reprogram the equipment’s function quickly, Flexible Automation is well suited for production of high mix of products that are continually changing or developing. It can handle both high- and low- volume production with ease. Of course, all this flexibility comes with a price. It is much more costly than the automation alternatives and operates at lower production rates. But if you have a need for a system that can adjust over time as your business changes, Flexible Automation may the best long-term investment.

Automation can be a game changer for large enterprises and small businesses alike. Even the smallest of shops have tasks that can take advantage of Hard Automation at a low cost. But if you take the time to understand your needs now and project them in the future, you may find that making a larger investment up front may pay off many times over down the road.