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The dawn of a new manufacturing frontier?

03 May 2016

Martin Griffiths, senior LabVIEW architect at Metis Automation, specialist software engineers, discusses the evolution of manufacturing processes and the dawn of the next stage – mass customisation.


As manufacturers, our goal is to manufacture products that customers want, to the quality they expect. There has been a concerted effort over the years to solve this challenge.

Craft production enabled craftsmen to create small volumes with high variety, each product was customised based on the producers skills but there was a limit to the quantities that could be produced. Mass production solved this challenge by enabling larger production volumes, but with limited variety. 

The next innovation, Lean Manufacturing, aimed to eliminate the waste and error introduced with mass production. It also enabled the production of large volumes with high variety. 

The trigger for each of these new methods has been ideas and technology that enables shifts in how manufacturing occurs.

Alongside the evolution in manufacturing processes has been an increase in the range and complexity of products being produced. This places an additional challenge on manufacturers – they need to produce highly complex products; at high volume and with high variety. Manufacturers who are able to meet this challenge are now said to be developing Mass Customisation production methods.

Bespoke products
Mass Customisation is the ability to create custom, almost bespoke products at the same volume and cost of mass produced products. It goes beyond the ability to change cosmetic features of a product, or to offer a number of product variations. It is the ability to offer a vast array of product configurations, and to cost effectively integrate this into a production system.

It’s at this point that additional intelligence is needed within the production process, because it becomes too difficult a challenge to rely on production operators to cope with this complexity.

When I have been involved in developing Mass Customisation processes, the goal has been to remove manual decision making from the production process and to move the decision making into the production system.

This requires a set of rules to be developed within the production system to handle different product configurations. The production system will then control the production process through manual operations; custom machinery; and product test systems. It is then able to control the journey of a product through a factory, selecting the correct operation at each stage.

The outcome of this is that a wide variety of products can be integrated into a production line with minimal impact.

One Metis Automation client, Bifold Fluid Power, had traditionally designed bespoke products as and when orders were presented. However, the company has now restructured most of its core products to be fully configurable. These use more structured part codes, and a set of rules are configured to determine which configurations are permitted.

Today, 70% of new Bifold orders do not see the design office. Customers are able to enter specific requirements into the Bifold Configurator App, and will then obtain an instant quote and lead-time, and are able to see a full 3D CAD model and bespoke data sheet for the chosen requirements.

In production, Bifold carry a small stock of main running components, but not complete assemblies. The company has an in-house machine shop with two machines dedicated to short run, fast response machining. This enables it to offer 48-hour delivery for an increasing core range of products. This is critical in the case of urgent spares and replacements.

All the assembly stations are identical. The build/test process is conducted piece by piece at a single station which avoids the need for complex routings and greatly condenses lead times. It also provides full flexibility to produce any product, at any station, improving workflow and work load balancing. 
Detailed, digital build and test instructions are available on the production system, and all test parameters are recorded and validated by the production test database.
The key challenge to implement this type of system is to take the production process for a product and to control all manual operations and process machinery involved. When each operation can be controlled, the entire production process can then be connected together to add the intelligence that is needed.
This is where production software can help engineers to connect devices and manual operations to control a production process. It can become the layer that helps join together a production process.

Figure 1 shows how a typical system works:

Production data: This is a database that holds product order and specification information. It defines what should be produced. The results of the production process as it happens are stored into this database.

Production system software: This controls the production sequence, and is the interaction between the production data and the production processes. It will receive the barcode scan from an operator and then gives the operator instructions and feedback on the production process.  

Production processes: These are the value adding manufacturing processes that create the product. It is important to be able to connect to each of these process so that the production system software can connect the whole production process.
Taking some of the product manufacturing complexity into the production equipment offers the following benefits:

• It is easier to produce a wide variety of complex products – Mass Customisation.

• The quality of each product increases due to standardisation of manufacturing being enforced at each stage.

• It also allows for greater insight into the manufacturing process. A large amount of statistical data about the production process is now being stored into the production database.

Production managers and planners will now have instant access to real time data as production happens. It is easy to see how sales orders will be met, and it is also easy to see when any issues are occurring on the production floor.

I have been involved in implementing systems such as this in a range of industries including automotive; food & drink; oil & gas; and heavy machinery. Although it is still early days for this stage of manufacturing, it is achievable and it can provide an edge over your competitors.

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