Guest Blog Part 3: Adding flexibility to the production line

Written by: Asif Moghal | Published:

Industry 4.0 is well underway, in which computers are coming together in entirely new ways to transform manufacturing processes. Automated systems are being equipped with algorithms that can learn and control machines in factories with very little input from human workers. These developments are giving rise to a new wave of flexibility in manufacturing. In the third of this five-part series, I discuss how technology is enabling this in today’s modern workshops and factory supply chains.

In these increasingly uncertain conditions, manufacturers are focusing on flexibility as a means of getting ahead of competitors and growing their market share. By being more flexible, they can respond to customer orders quickly, provide a broader product range, and introduce new products to the range effortlessly.

What is flexible manufacturing?

Flexible manufacturing means lots of different things to different people. It can mean automating certain processes along the production line, reconfiguring machines to carry out multiple different functions or training human workers to do a range of tasks – welding or working collaboratively with an industrial robot, for instance. One example of this is Hive, a pavilion built in three days by a collaborative team made up of human and robot workers.

In the fourth industrial revolution, robots are being used in factories to augment human labour and empower people to create new things that wouldn’t previously have been possible. Traditionally, robots have been used to automate menial tasks, freeing up the engineering team’s time to focus on innovation. However, these highly adaptable machines can also be easily reprogrammed to do multiple different applications. By changing the end effector on a robotic arm for instance, the machine could be assembling one minute and painting the next. This versatility makes the production process more efficient, freeing up the team’s time to focus on tasks where they can add more value.

Pop-up factories are another example of flexible manufacturing, where production lines can physically be taken to the point of demand. By centralising design and development, production could be dispersed to smaller, regional factories to be nearer the end markets, again, speeding up the production line.

How to make the production line more flexible

Adding flexibility to manufacturing doesn’t mean shutting down the mass production facility and ripping all the equipment out. Instead, identify where it makes sense to standardise and automate, and free up resource to be flexible where it adds most value. Understand what your customer base wants, and add the right level of flexibility at that point. BAC, a Liverpool-based supercar manufacturer for instance, tailors the seat and steering wheel to each individual driver’s measurements and preferences. This means the team of engineers doesn’t have to reinvent each car from scratch for every customer through the door, but that they still benefit from a bespoke finish.

While there is a role for mass manufacturing – Apple and Samsung supplier, Foxconn, recently replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots, for example – those that don’t evolve their processes to be more agile and nimble run the risk of competing on the global stage against companies who focus on high volume/low cost, where labour is typically cheaper. By concentrating more on value-add propositions, manufacturers can ensure they remain competitive, attracting and retaining business in this increasingly volatile landscape.

Look out for the fourth piece in this series, where I’ll be exploring how manufacturers can enhance the customer experience to retain their business.

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