#4 APA - door opener to successful automation

#Whatsnextrobotics – Automation Potential Analysis compact

  • Company-specific economic and technical criteria determine the success of an automation solution
  • Automation Potential Analysis provides companies with an impartial and reliable basis for making decisions
  • Over 500 customers have used this to automate their assembly operations
  • Currently, the development team is expanding its APA services and an analysis application for robot-based welding and intralogistics is already available
© Fraunhofer IPA

#4 APA - door opener to successful automation

When it comes to sought-after services related to robotics at Fraunhofer IPA, Automation Potential Analysis, or APA for short, is right at the forefront. For many years, it has been paving the way for companies to systematically introduce automation into their assembly processes. Now new applications such as welding and intralogistics are being added.

Everyone is talking about more automation, and for good reason. Challenges facing society like the shortage of skilled workers, demographic change, strong competition due to globalization coupled with unreliable supply chains, as well as the need to (re-)establish a more resilient form of production, if necessary even in such high-wage countries as Germany (reshoring), are just some of the factors driving automation forward.

At the same time, automation is anything but an end in itself. Technical and economic criteria are the most important factors to be considered. Not everything that is technically feasible necessarily meets a company's economic criteria. And not everything that is economically desirable necessarily makes sense from a technical point of view. Companies find it hard to reach a sound decision because they naturally have to safeguard their investments and avoid making planning errors. In addition, the standard solutions on today’s market are sometimes not so easy to transfer to a company’s specific situation. As we all know, it’s when you get down to the details that the problems start.

Nevertheless, automation can still often be planned and implemented successfully. The development team behind the Automation Potential Analysis (APA) at Fraunhofer IPA aims to meet a company's exact needs. More than 500 customer projects implemented worldwide show that the team is on the right track.

Analyzing and evaluating assembly steps

Up until now, the focus has been on automating assembly processes. In this type of compact APA project, the Fraunhofer IPA experts go directly to the production site and take a close look at all the assembly steps hitherto carried out manually. They break these down into the four sub-steps of separating, handling, positioning and joining, and award points for each of them: The more “automation-friendly” a step is, the more points it gets. Bulk material that easily gets jammed is therefore awarded few points, while insertion chamfers or end stops are awarded more points because these devices make it easier to position the parts to be assembled. Further criteria that are included in the analysis are, for example, the nature of the material (rigid or flexible) or the required joining movements.

Three options for action for automating assembly

The customer thus receives an assessment of how easy it is to automate assembly, taking into account the above-mentioned technical and economic criteria, which can be weighted individually.
 These evaluations are visualized in a matrix and classified into three categories with corresponding options for action.

1. Use of standard automation: processes that are easy for robots to perform, such as “pick & place”, which are typically coupled with multiple-shift operation, can be implemented with a fast return on investment using standard automation solutions.

2. Special-purpose automation: processes which are also interesting from the economic point of view but too specialized can be implemented with the help of a system integrator who develops a customized automation solution.

3. Design for Automation: where certain products are involved (e.g., flexible or transparent parts), automation is not possible. However, if the end customer allows these parts to be modified, they can be designed in a way that is suitable for automation, thus enabling the process to be implemented as a special or even standard automation solution. Eleven design rules are available for Design for Automation, which can be used to assess how automation-friendly a product is and what would need to be changed. The rules focus, for example, on the modularity of a product structure, the use of standardized components or the number of parts involved. The goal is to make a process automatable or at least easier to execute manually.

Welding APA 

The Automation Potential Analysis thus reflects the demands of production on robot systems compared to the state of the art in robotics and automation. With this service, the development team has really struck a chord with companies. This is proved, on the one hand, by the many projects implemented in the field of assembly automation. But it is also reflected by the large number of inquiries about automating other production steps.

For this reason, APA services are currently being expanded. An APA for welding is already available. This is an area where the shortage of skilled workers is particularly pronounced. Many companies, especially medium-sized enterprises with smaller batch sizes, would therefore like to automate more of their operations. “Could we also weld this part with a robot?” was therefore a question that the team was frequently asked. In a similar way to the Assembly APA, they have thus developed a questionnaire which companies can use to answer precisely this question. For example, topics such as the base materials to be welded, seam preparation or slag removal play a role.

As with assembly, the companies find out how “fit for automation” a process is and can thus make a well-founded decision for or against the use of robots. Because, after all, it might be the case that manual welding is still the better option. Or, the APA team can make recommendations as to how the process can be made more automation-friendly. While the Welding APA is already available, the versions for mobile robotics and machine loading are still under development.

APA app

Besides adding new applications, there is another piece of news about the APA: From June onwards, it will also be available as an app. Because an external partner will receive the license for this, companies will be able to carry out the APA themselves if they wish. The development team is looking forward to feedback from companies that have carried out the APA and will be happy to answer any questions and take further steps regarding the design, feasibility or implementation of automation solutions.

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