08 Jan AUTOMATION – NOT JUST A QUESTION OF TASTE
Products, production quantities, cyclicality, variability, as well as internal and external conditions and the supply chain are the starting point for a production design. The processes are of particular significance – depending on the task, they are predefined, can be adapted or developed afresh. Processes are the basis on which production and, if necessary, the organisation are based. Economic efficiency, safety and ease of use are among the mandatory requirements.
In this context, the degree of automation also becomes important. By definition, ‘automation’ means “artificial systems that automatically follow a program and make decisions based on the program to control and, if necessary, regulate processes (Prof. Dr. Kai-Ingo Voigt, Univ. Erlangen-Nuremberg). Or according to DIN 19 233: the equipping of a device so that it operates wholly or partly in accordance with its intended purpose without human intervention. Automation can relate to machining, processing, conveying, handling and storage operations as well as to development, production planning and control operations.
Buss Ko Kneader for continuous production of plastic compounds
But what is the ideal degree of automation for a production or process? The answer to this question is more complex – there are several aspects to be considered
First of all, it needs to be clear how far the production process in question can be effectively automated. What is actually feasible? Important information in this regard can be provided by clarifying the extent to which the chemical or physical background of a process is really known – or whether the process background is unclear because it was developed empirically.
Another question is how much of the relevant know-how the producer already has – or to what extent, as is the case with chocolate production, the supplier of the production equipment has it.
In a process, the question arises as to what requirements are placed on the equipment and how the process must be controlled and monitored. The stability of a process has a significant influence. Are the technological possibilities available to measure the relevant states/parameters as inline and lossless as possible? Quality requirements can also suggest a high degree of automation.
The decision between discontinuous and continuous production methods is moreover influenced by the required production volume and dwell times. It should be noted that in continuous production, parameters often deviate significantly from values in discontinuous production (shear rates, temperatures, pressures) without any loss of quality. On the contrary! Higher qualities can often be achieved in continuous processes, because dwell times are much shorter in continuous processes and the stress on the product is lower. A continuous process can make a quantum leap in terms of costs, despite a higher investment sum and even when start-up and cleaning losses are included. The process is easier to automate and the plant sizes are comparatively small.
Automation is by no means just a question of taste. Discontinuous or less automated production processes are in demand when small production quantities are available and/or manual intervention in the production process is necessary. This also applies if high retention times occur or if quality checks have to be carried out offline. In this case, batch processes are usually advisable and more economical.
For filling and packaging plants, there are increasing numbers of solutions that offer attractive solutions with a high degree of automation even for smaller quantities and/or different products. The challenge of these systems is the large handling costs, which naturally leads to lower availability. At the same time, cleaning and the expenditure required to convert to other formats influences the usability. In general, differences in quality and “cleverness” of the systems have a significant influence on the economic efficiency, because malfunctions cost disproportionately high amounts of money and resources.
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