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What value does automation bring to materialography?

Across many industries, automation has proved to be a highly dependable way to achieve greater throughput, consistency, and accuracy. By removing human involvement as much as possible, an automated process can be completed more efficiently and cost-effectively, with minimal variation. But how well can this be applied to materialography and what value does it really deliver?

The simple answer is that for many labs, automation is by far the most effective way to ensure optimal quality and reproducibility of results, in time, more safely, and with less need for operator training.

Automation is not new. For centuries mankind has developed tools and machinery to achieve more efficient production than would be possible through human labor alone. The technology behind automation has evolved rapidly, particularly in the last 20 years, thanks to growth in industrial production driven by consolidation in markets and greater consumer demand.

In light of this, a new generation of automated equipment has given manufacturers and product developers a way to overcome a difficult challenge: how to maintain process efficiency and product quality when increasing throughput to meet higher demand?

Eliminating the risk of human error

“I don’t think automation is necessarily driven by a desire to solve problems,” says Jacob Rubæk Holm, Associate Professor in Industrial Dynamics and Quantitative Methods. “It’s more of a proactive decision to become more efficient and consistent. Today, this is simply a necessity to win in business.”

Automation works at its best when you have a strictly defined, standardized task that needs reproducing over and over again. Materialography fits this model perfectly. While this can be achieved to a certain degree by using a large workforce (a tempting prospect in countries with low labor costs), there are inevitable problems with using manpower alone.

The most significant of these is human error. No matter how well trained a workforce may be, people make mistakes. For some businesses, the odd defect in a product may not matter to overall performance, but for others, absolute accuracy is pivotal as the potential risks are too high. Take aerospace for example – if a single blade in a jet engine fails, the consequences could be disastrous in terms of both human safety and for the reputations of the companies involved.

As a result, such companies will try to minimize this human error problem. One way is to improve the skill level of their workforce through more training, but this is an expensive route to take and will never eliminate the problem entirely.

The other, more effective method is through automation. When you need a specific task completed the same way, every time, with complete certainty and no disruptions to production flow, you need a machine to do the job.

Why it’s crucial to work with a specialist

Nevertheless, while an automated process can be the right solution for labs looking for the best in terms of reproducibility, process standardization, high throughput, and ease-of-use, it isn’t simply a case of buying the right equipment and turning it on. A machine, no matter how sophisticated, only does what it is told to do.

“The latest automated equipment is highly sophisticated,” says Stig Quist, VP of Business Development at Struers. “But it must be aligned to a lab’s specific requirements and optimized to the right process to get the right outcome. That’s why it is so important to work with a specialist partner who has a deep understanding of all the factors involved, such as the materials being tested, the method, and the specification of the results – and who knows how to implement all this into the equipment itself.”

An automated materialographic process doesn’t have to be complex and the gains far outweigh the investment cost. With the right equipment and set up, businesses can reap the rewards that greater throughput, accuracy, and efficiency have to offer.

Read more about automation

Read our other articles to understand more about the benefits of automation in materialography, or find out more about Struers and how we can partner with you to support your needs.