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Solving materialography’s biggest challenges with automation

When thinking of automation in industry, people tend to picture rows of robot arms making cars. However, this technology can play a vital role in many other areas of the production process. As consumer demand continues to increase, businesses must find new ways to overcome challenges related to efficiency and consistency to stay competitive. Here’s how automation can provide the answer.

The holy grail of materialography – reproducibility

For many businesses, consistency in product quality is vital to maintaining competitiveness. If you take the automotive industry, for example, even the smallest anomaly in a product can have potentially life-threatening consequences. The risks are simply too great to ignore. As a result, their materialographic process must be as effective as possible, which is where reproducibility comes in; if the process is reproducible, the results can be relied upon.

Automation greatly improves reproducibility by minimizing human involvement – and therefore human error – that can affect the outcome. By definition, a machine will do exactly the same steps in exactly the same way, every time, which results in a higher degree of accuracy and repeatability. This naturally translates into greater certainty, efficiency, and quality control – and in highly competitive markets where reputation and trust are crucial to uphold, this can mean the difference between success and failure.

Meeting throughput needs

In the not-too-distant future, consolidation will mean fewer manufacturers will produce larger batches cross many different production sites.

“This puts greater pressure on businesses to deliver consistent product quality, globally. So, there’ll be a need for solutions that enable greater throughput, accuracy, and efficiency, ideally without incurring more cost,” says Jacob Rubæk Holm, Associate Professor in Industrial Dynamics and Quantitative Methods.

It is for this reason that many materialographic labs are turning to automation to solve their throughput issues. Particularly for more repetitive processes, automation gives a more reliable way to deliver the promised number of specimens in time, with fewer hands, and, as a key concern for management, with minimal stops.

Optimization through standardization

Automated equipment also enables labs to ensure greater process standardization, which is another important factor that affects reproducibility. Automation makes it easier for another person to take over the task without compromising the quality of the result and, unlike a person, a machine will never fail to follow the process specifically as it should be done. This enhances efficiency, reduces waste, and helps to remove any element of uncertainty in the process.

In addition, a more standardized process not only gives labs the certainty they need in their results, but also greater insight into their method. The data this creates is highly valuable and can be used by technicians in different ways, for example process and method optimization, to provide documentation for audit trails, or plan for scheduled maintenance.

Simply making things easier

Automation can also help to make the workforce more productive. By taking the preparation process out of human hands, lab technicians will have more free time to focus on other valuable tasks, such as analysis.

New generations of automated equipment are also simpler to use, which not only makes the process safer for operators, but it means less training is required and so more people can do it. Another related and sometimes overlooked factor is mental wellbeing – it is well-known that if a worker’s job is easier, safer, and less pressured, they will naturally be more productive.

Where specialist support makes the difference

However, implementing an automated materialographic process is not as simple as purchasing the equipment and switching it on. It is best to work with a specialist partner who understands your needs, ensures you have the right equipment, and can share process insights. When these factors come together, the benefits of an automated process start to show their value.

Furthermore, the global nature of many manufacturing businesses means that some businesses often have multiple production factories spread out across the world. If they need to ensure every product meets the same, highly demanding specifications, it is crucial their materialographic process is standardized across production lines. As such, it is important to use a materialographic partner who can match your global footprint and provide consistent expertise and the same equipment, no matter where you are or when you need it.

A driving force for success

Automation has come a long way over the last 100 years and now plays a core role in helping businesses to maintain efficiency, consistency, and quality across their production process. Materialography specialists, such as Struers, have brought these advantages directly into testing labs, helping businesses to solve their challenges and enabling them to deliver even greater certainty for their customers.

“Automation has proved itself to be useful in many more areas than anyone ever thought it would be,” comments Stig Quist, VP of Business Development at Struers. “Where it goes next will be interesting. Areas such as machine learning will change how versatile this technology can be and will open new doors of opportunity.

“One thing is for sure; as customers look to streamline production, implement strategies such as LEAN, and install greater efficiency and quality across all aspects of their business, automation will be one of the driving forces behind their success. At Struers, we have the expertise and solutions ready now to make that happen.”

GET MORE INSIGHTS ON 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.