What Is The Difference Between Automation And Robotics

Automation and robotics are both used by manufacturing businesses to cut costs, increase capacity, and improve quality and safety. However, they’re not the same thing and the terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably. Here’s an explanation of the difference, and a discussion of when and how each might be applied. First though, a look at why manufacturers need cost-saving, quality-improving technologies.

The Drivers Behind Automation and Robotics

Every manufacturer is, or should be, looking for ways to reduce costs and improve quality. They also want to keep workers safe, and expand operations. Automation and robotics provide a way of achieving these objectives.

Manufacturers often start out looking for ways to eliminate repetitive manual tasks. This can save money, but perhaps of greater importance, it also removes human workers from dirty, dangerous and boring jobs.

Once an activity no longer needs a human to perform it, there’s no reason for the job to stop. Operating through breaks and at night and weekends means more capacity, more volume, and enhanced overhead dilution.

Quality improvements are often an unexpected benefit of automation and robotics. Human workers are not good at repetitive tasks. They get bored quickly and are easily distracted. That leads to defects, waste, and accidents. When a task is automated or assigned to a robot it gets done exactly the same at 5 pm on Friday as at 8 am on Monday.

Understanding Automation

Automation refers to having a machine or mechanism perform an action that would otherwise need some human involvement. This action is usually initiated by some kind of controller in response to a signal or input. A level switch on a tank, linked to a pump, is a form of automation: the pump runs to fill the tank and when the tank is full the switch turns the pump off.

In factories, pneumatic cylinders are used to perform a host of activities automatically. A pneumatic cylinder can move a gate across a conveyor to divert product to a different machine or close the lid of a carton. More sophisticated systems replace pneumatics with motor-driven leadscrews that provide control over velocity and acceleration. Stepper motors, once popular for such applications, are increasingly being replaced by servo drive systems.

Single automated movements are often combined in a machine to perform processing, assembly or packaging tasks. Consider for example:

  • Laser marking equipment – integrated into conveyor and feeding systems, this automatically applies identification codes and characters as parts or assemblies move past.
  • Bottle filling and capping equipment – automatically dispenses a set volume of liquid into a bottle, after which another station automatically applies the cap.
  • CNC turning – the lathe spindle and tool axes follow a programmed series of motions to produce the desired shape.

A feature of this last example is the flexibility provided by programmability. Whereas simple automated systems perform a single action in response to a signal, in a programmable machine the sequence and speed can be changed. This is why CNC machine tools were such a big advance over manually-operated lathes and milling machines. Once the program is loaded and tools set, the machine can run unattended. When it needs to make a different part, tools and programs are changed as needed, and the machine makes something different.

Different Types of Robotics

The archetypal industrial robot is a five or six axis arm that moves through space to perform a task. That task could be anything from painting a car body to stacking cartons on a pallet to performing a delicate pipetting operation in a laboratory. In some applications the robot arm holds a tool – a spray gun, a syringe or a deburring tool for example – in others it moves the part, product or container being manufactured or packaged.

However, industrial robots take more forms than just the articulated arm. A delta robot looks like a spider performing high speed pick-and-place motions over a conveyor belt. A gantry robot may only need three axes to cut, lift and stack sheet materials.

Some robot manufacturers now offer “cobots,” (short for collaborative robots) that don’t need cages to protect nearby workers. These can work alongside humans on a production line and are quickly taught new tasks.

There are also single axis robotic cylinders that can be programmed to follow specific sequences of steps. These can be combined with other robotic cylinders to create machines capable of complex operation sequences at high speed. Almost inevitably though, these relatively inexpensive and easy-to-use mechanisms bring up the question of what the difference is between automation and robotics.

Is it Automation, Robotics, or Both?

A very general answer is that robotics, which refers to anything to do with robots, is a specific type of automation. A more complete explanation entails identifying the distinguishing characteristics of each.

Automation refers to a motion or task being performed without human involvement. Box filling, label application and repetitive assembly work are all examples. These are all characterized by:

  • A mechanism that operates in response to a signal (likely a sensor or timer)
  • Repetitive motion, performed in the same direction over the same distance at the same speed every time

A robot is a programmable mechanism where the axes move in a sequence and at a speed dictated by the program. Features to look for include:

  • The ability to move through space in a way not constrained by rigid axes. (Arguably, this excludes gantry robots.)
  • Multiple sensors and advanced control systems that provide “if-then” branching
  • Programmable motion sequences

In summary, a robot is really a very specialized, and sophisticated, form of automation. Robots perform their tasks automatically, but automation does not necessarily require a robot.

Know What’s Available

When exploring opportunities for automation, simple or complex, it helps to have someone on the team who understands the wide variety of products available. This person need not be an employee. In fact, such a person’s knowledge may be limited to what’s been done before. Consider instead partnering with an external resource or organization with access to an extensive range of automation and robotics products.

Are you stuck on whether an automation system, robotic system, or a combination of both is best for your business?

We can help you choose the right system that meets your application needs. Contact us by email or phone to find the right supplier for you!