Tips & Tricks: This topic is important from the ICT exam point of view.

Describe the use of computers in Manufacturing

Manufacturing uses ICT (i.e., automation) in a number of areas to improve productivity, reduce costs, improve consistency and to make factories safer and more environmentally friendly.

One of the most common forms of automation is the use of robots.

Robotics

Robots are used in many areas of manufacturing, from heavy work to delicate operations.  For example, welding bodywork on cars, manufacturing of microchips, paint spraying of car bodies, automatic warehouses and manufacturing electrical goods.

Control of robots is either through embedded that is built-in microprocessors or linked to a computer system.  Programming of the robot to do a series of tasks is generally done in two ways:

  1. The robot is programmed with a sequence of instructions which allow it to carry out the series of tasks (e.g. spraying a car body with paint).
  2. Alternatively, a human operator manually carries out the series of tasks; this can be done in two ways.  Here lets assume, an object is being painted using a robot arm.

a. The robot arm is guided by a worker when spraying the object; each movement of the arm is stored as an instruction in the computer

OR

b. The worker straps sensors to his own arm and sprays the object; each movement is stored as a set of instructions in a computer; the sensors send back information such as position relative to the object; arm rotation and son on – this information forms part of the instructions stored in the computer.

Whichever method is used, once the instructions have been saved, each series of tasks can then be carried out by a robot arm automatically.  Each instruction will be carried out identically every time (e.g. assembling parts in a mobile phone) giving a consistent product.

Robots are often equipped with sensors so they can gather important information about their surroundings and also preventing them from doing ‘stupid things’ e.g. stopping a robot spraying a car if no car is present or stop the spraying operation if the supply of paint has run out, etc.

Robots are very good at repetitive tasks.  However, if there are many different tasks (e.g. making specialist glassware for some scientific work) then it is often better to still use human operators.

Advantages

  • They can  do boring, repetitive tasks leaving humans free to do other more skilled work (e.g., quality control or design work).
  • They can work in environments harmful to human operators.
  • Higher productivity (don’t need holidays, etc).
  • They can work non-stop (24/7).
  • Greater consistency (e.g., every car coming off a assembly line is identical).
  • They are less expensive in the long term (although expensive to buy initially, they don’t need wages).

Disadvantages

  • The initial set up and maintenance of robots can be expensive.
  • They find it difficult to do ‘unusual’ tasks (e.g. one-off glassware for a chemical company).
  • They can cause higher unemployment (replacing skilled labour).
  • Since robots do many of the tasks once done by humans, there is a real risk of certain skills (such as welding) being lost.
  • Because robots are independent of the skills base, factories can be moved anywhere in the world (again causing unemployment).

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