Omron Electronics – Flexible by design: Say goodbye to the production line


Author: Stuart Coulton, OMRON Electronics Ltd

July 12, 2022

Every year, a certain number of words disappear from the dictionary. That is, they become obsolete. “Slubberdegullion” (a drooling or worthless type) and “groaking” (looking longingly at someone while they eat), are two that are now considered obsolete by lexicographers.

It may not be imminent, but my prediction is that one day the term ‘production line’ will fall into disuse and join them in the obsolete camp.

In all process industries, there is a movement from mass production towards High-Mix Low-Volume (HMLV) manufacturing or – at its extreme – customization.

This is not a change that happened overnight: the shift to smaller batches and more frequent changes has been underway for years.

What has changed in a very short time, however, is the importance of e-commerce as a market access channel. Online retail sales have exploded since 2019 and are expected to reach $7.5 trillion globally by 2025. This has put unprecedented pressure on the manufacturing sector as it is expected to produce on demand with zero defect and complete traceability.

Say goodbye to the production line
Producers are finding that the conventional production line, so well suited to high-volume mass production, is not compatible with an HMLV manufacturing approach. A traditional line is simply not designed to take into account the intricacies of demand while maintaining commercially viable levels of efficiency. Today, manufacturing needs to be flexible to be able to react quickly.

In the past, building flexibility into a production operation typically involved quick-change parts and more manual intervention. At a time when labor shortages have reached a crisis point, this is not an option. Instead, this custom production approach requires systems that are flexible by design – a goal that can be achieved through the development of an autonomous and collaborative factory ecosystem.

This means embracing the concepts of synchronicity and modularity. Rather than assuming that production should be linear, with sequential operations, manufacturers should consider an approach that involves multiple processing stations that, although interconnected, are independent rather than interdependent and can be operated non-sequentially. Only by tearing the design rules from the production line will manufacturers achieve true agility.

Three key elements must be taken into account for a company to become a collaborative and autonomous factory: technology, people and discipline.

Technology: Game Changers and Game Enablers
Robotics technology has seen the rise of collaborative and autonomous robots, while Industry 4.0 has introduced a full suite of evolving technologies, from big data and cloud computing to augmented reality (AR) and the Internet of Things. (IoT). All of these technologies have enormous potential to add value and create flexible workflows in the future, but the challenge is to use them effectively.

Take Big Data, for example, there is a lot of data available in the factory, but how do production managers identify useful data and use it effectively? The key here is not only to have game-changing technology, but also “game enablers” – in other words, a proven industrial automation platform and strong partners with experience in technologies such as 5G, Edge AI (artificial intelligence) and data analytics.

People: From Automation to Replacement to Automation to Empowerment
The ingredient that is too often overlooked is people. Ultimately, this approach has the potential to empower workers, allow them to improve their skills and get more interesting and better paying jobs. An autonomous, collaborative factory will have fewer workers than a conventional factory, but those involved will no longer have to perform repetitive mechanical tasks – robots can perform them.

But the day-to-day management of the factory is only one aspect of considering ‘people’. The other is the need for people to implement next-generation technologies and automation projects. Currently, there is a huge gap within manufacturing when it comes to IT, communication and technical skills.

In a study conducted by OMRON, nearly 90% of IT managers said they would rely on external consultants to navigate DX and Industry 4.0. In this context, partnerships have never been more important and any project will have to be a three-way collaboration between the manufacturer, the technology provider and the system integrator.

Discipline: think beyond, start small, scale fast
The journey to collaborative and autonomous manufacturing is exactly that: a journey. Moving from proof of concept to a position where you derive value from a system takes time. And it can’t be rushed. Companies need to think carefully about what technology they want, how they will develop it from a cost and risk perspective, and how they will get buy-in from their staff.

That’s why Omron advises its customers to think big but start small and scale quickly. There’s no point in rushing out and spending £400,000 on mobile robots because anything that will succeed will alienate people. Start small, prove the concept, get people on board and then scale up would be our advice.

Over the past few months, Omron’s Flexible Manufacturing Roadshow has traveled across Europe, giving manufacturers the opportunity to experience a wide range of solutions for the factory of the future. These include flexible palletizing, autonomous material transport and flexible human-machine collaboration, all supported by full traceability.

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