Are Flexible Assembly Systems Becoming Less Common?

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Product life cycles (the time-span between market introduction and model replacement/removal) are becoming shorter and shorter. Around fifty percent of an average company’s revenue is based off of their products (released in the last three years or so), and the usage of long-term products is decreasing at a noticeable rate. One popular example of this decline is Apple Inc., who, since introducing the iPad back in April 2010, have launched six more generations of the tablet. With such a substantial downtrend in model turnover, one would expect the use of automated assembly systems to have inversely increased during the past few years, but some data seems to imply the exact opposite is true.

Programmable automation is a term used to refer to any flexible automated equipment that runs with minimal intervention from a human operator. These systems can be reprogrammed in less than 24 hours to adapt to different variations of products. Fixed automation, on the other hand, are much less flexible and require substantial alterations be done to the system to change products. , According to a recent annual Capital Equipment Spending Survey, the percentage of factories that have used fixed automated assembly systems over the past decade has held relatively constant at around 18 percent, while the application of programmable automation has diminished over the years. In 2014, only 27 percent of factories used this type of flexible automation, whereas 12 years ago, 39 percent of plants operated programmable automated assembly systems. Programmable assembly is still more popular than fixed systems, but, unlike fixed automation, the percentage of factories employing it has dropped by a considerable amount. This data seems to contradict the assumed need of more flexibility in automated systems as time passes.

One solution to this apparent quandary proposes that the data may be contradictory to previous assumptions due to the differences survey taker’s may have when considering the definitions of fixed and programmable automation. Differences in definitions of these terms may have very well created fallacies and discrepancies in the data that could possibly make it unreliable without other support.

In many cases, it does appear as if machines are becoming more and more advanced and flexible, almost making smart machines with several different functionalities an expectation instead of luxury. Nevertheless, whether programmable assembly machines are becoming more or less frequent in industrialism, there is no doubt that technology is advancing automation at a substantial rate, one where perhaps the key differences between fixed and flexible machines become indistinguishable.