Personalising the manufacturing process

07 October 2018

Faouzi Grebici shares his vision of an autonomous and intelligent manufacturing approach where the three key functions of transformation, transfer and transportation are harmonised to provide optimum agility.

Figure 1: Changeability map as envisioned by Omron.
Figure 1: Changeability map as envisioned by Omron.

Consumer demand for more customised products is a trend that is necessitating rapid change in both the supply chain and manufacturing processes. The traditional manufacturing scenario is usually optimised around low mix/high volume production models so there is a steep learning curve for Industry to adapt to the new normal. 

The conventional approach of ‘same, standardized and stocked’ products with a heavy initial investment and uncertain return on capital is severely challenged by todays shrinking product lifecycles and the e-commerce trend for convenience shopping. 
The challenge is that most manufacturing plants are built to leverage efficiency through volume. Emphasis has always been put on the product transformation from raw to finish with monolithic lines. To respond to high mix, low volume demand it is common to call for an extra process at the end of the line or to rely on subcontractors that are embedded within the supply chain.  

Transportation of products within the plant and the transfer from machine to machine is usually either rigid or is a manual process undertaken as close as possible to the line. Existing production lines are struggling to cope with faster product cycles and more rapidly changing consumer demands. This has resulted in the need  for production lines designed with changeability built-in  to allow them to be more flexible.

Preparing for changeability
Changeability is defined by the ability of an enterprise to react to change – from product shape and form up to the enterprise business model. It should be built into machines, to line reconfigurability up to product flow flexibility to address the ultimate agility through production relocation-ability. 

Figure 2: Concept of a polymorphic production line for high mix-low volume.
Figure 2: Concept of a polymorphic production line for high mix-low volume.

Change-over-ability is critical at the transformation stage. It consists mainly in machine control and operations. Here it is possible to address variability through changing shape and size mainly but maintaining the nature of the product. Then comes the stage where the product nature and family is changeable and this deals with full line reconfiguration to start a new production batch. 

Flexibility comes when the flow of the product is changed and the linear synchronicity is broken to allow products to move directly to workstations where the transformation happens instead of every product going through all the same stations and taking up almost the same takt time. The ultimate agility comes when production cells are easily re-locatable within the plant or even to different sites across the globe. Figure 1 outlines the changeability map envisioned by Omron. Attaining full flexibility is achieved best when the three key functions of Transform, Transfer and Transport (3Ts) are integrated in the initial design of the line. 

Intelligent cells
It is proposed that responding to a need for greater high variability within small volume and high mix production lines a new approach should be considered, based on a poly-morphic production line. As shown in Figure 2, transformation cells with reconfigurable fixed robots are supplied by mobile robots that are autonomous, intelligent and collaborative. This calls for smart transfer systems to ensure minimum idling time when loading or unloading the workstations. The key to achieving highest efficiency is to balance the load of the production cells through smart feeding and proper sorting and alignment and by optimising flow of the mobile robots so that queuing, loading/unloading and travelling is optimised. Omron offers a planning tool to simulate these tasks well as an Enterprise Manager which is able to control a  fleet up to 100 mobile robots. 

Looking at integration from initial design the 3Ts are key. However,  to ensure a viably industrialised line it is also vital to employ lean concepts that look at the operational excellence and human safety. Human safety is a critical aspect from start and cannot be retrofitted once the line is in operation. With products being freely transported around production cells safety assessments should be undertaken at every stage of the operation. 

Figure 3: Cost of failure and focus on line failure prevention through real time
Figure 3: Cost of failure and focus on line failure prevention through real time

Operational excellence 
While data is important, it is necessary to focus on ‘relevant’ data, which can now also be collected from the edge. A failure will cost exponentially more as it travels farther away from the machine level. 

However, collecting data without a base of lean thinking is fruitless. Operational excellence is about achieving the target cost with zero compromise on quality and maximum customer satisfaction through committed delivery. Hence Quality, Cost and Delivery (QCD) should be the starting point. Figure 3 demonstrates a simplified approach to this. Quality should be about product quality and process quality as a single entity, while delivery is about equipment availability and equipment performance as targeted. From quality stems traceability and from availability stems visibility on the shop floor. All of this leads to a controlled and improved cost performance. Omron is adding a new dimension to improving machine availability and quality through edge-based machine learning controllers which will help predictive maintenance and faster machine set up which, in turn, will contribute to a better QCD. 

In conclusion, it is consumer behaviour that is shaping the factory of tomorrow. Omron is happy to share its vision of a factory that produces on demand to reduce waste and scrap, re-utilise equipment to maximise the return on engaged assets and above all a working environment where the operator is turned into a true creator.


Faouzi Grebici is industry solution manager for Omron EMEA.

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