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Flexible manufacturing

By Alexander Farnsworth +4670 7488232

Flexible manufacturing

Industrial automation is pervasive and developing quickly in line with advances in IT. But product lifecycles are getting shorter, which is a strain on manufacturers. The solution: Virtual manufacturing.

Flexibility, efficiency, time-to-market, variety, hygiene, traceability, microelectronics, software – these are some of the driving forces in industrial automation.

Industrial automation is necessary for today's society. Everything we consume or buy has, at some point, come in contact with some form of automated process. Whether it is in the factory, or in the transportation stage, our mobile phones, yogurts, clothes and newspapers have all been whisked from one place to another by powerful, intelligent and often networked conveyor systems.

Industrial automation originates from the industrial revolution when assembly lines were developed to manufacture products. Since then, industrial automation has progressively taken menial jobs away from humans and mechanized them.

It is also an enormously complex field as computers, sensors, networks, and Ethernets, have progressively entered the field to control and monitor production.

And often, the more automated a process becomes, the more hygienic the process becomes as humans are no longer involved. And as a corollary to this, the more traceable the final product becomes. This is especially important in the food industry, for example.

"It doesn't have to be that complicated," says Björn Langbeck, at the IVF Industrial Research and Development Corporation, a research institute in Stockholm. "A car is complicated under the hood, but it is easy to drive. IT systems in the factory are complicated but they ought to be easy for the user."

According to the Siemens website, it will be possible in the near future to control production at a factory by sitting in front of a web browser.

"The drivers in industrial automation are microelectronics and software," says Professor Klaus Wucherer, member of the corporate executive committee at Siemens AG, in an article in IEE Computing & Control Engineering magazine in July 2003.

"The dream of every factory designer and automation specialist is a digital factory. Soon, designers at an auto manufacturer will watch the virtual vehicle emerge from the virtual factory. In fact, auto manufacturers will approve a new model only after seeing the digital vehicle pass through the digital factory – and after they have exhausted all product design and production options," says Wucherer.

But it is the pace at which companies are churning out a plethora of new products with new functionalities and tastes - low-salt, low-fat, individual sizes, alternative packaging, new models – that has put a strain on existing factory automation. As product lifecycles get shorter, cost conscious industries are slowly rethinking manufacturing routines.

In 2002, Daimler Chrysler launched a pilot project at two of its car factories based on this digital factory concept. The idea was to simulate at an early stage all the steps and processes that go into making a car. By doing this, they could foresee problems before they happened on the factory floor. They also decreased their time to market by 40 percent and achieved 70 percent gains in efficiency, according the German car magazine Auto Magazin.

"More products are going to market much faster than they ever have before," says Professor Anders Kinnander, an expert in production technology at the Chalmers Institute of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. "Shorter lifecycles also means that production lines have to be more flexible than they ever have been. And this has big consequences for companies who need industrial automation for their production."

Another clear trend in the field is a move towards more modular automation technologies that are easy to reconfigure in order to satisfy particular customer needs. Approximately 70 percent of the cost of a product is born from its manufacturing, so flexibility in the automation can also substantially cut costs.

According to Fredrik Jönsson, CEO of FlexLink, a supplier of industrial automation solutions (that grew out of SKF), modular automation and virtual production (the digital factory) offer the most significant cost savings for manufacturers.

Together with IBM and others, FlexLink launched its own digital factory concept in late 2002. By combining into one system all the aspects of manufacturing – computer assisted design, production data management, manufacturing execution systems, supply chain management and enterprise resource planning – FlexLink and its partners have developed one of the most flexible automation systems in the world. FlexLink calls it the PLM factory, short for Product and Process Lifecycle Management.

"How do you optimize future production of a prototype, quickly move to a full-scale production and maximize profits during the phase out of old products simultaneously in the same production line?" asks Jönsson, rhetorically. "To do this successfully, you need to manage product, production, and order data effectively and use modular, flexible and reusable equipment and software. The key is to evaluate all options in the simulated production environment before you start in real life."

"Instead of building up production capacity dimensioned for an expected maximum volume, the idea with the PLM Factory is to progressively build up capacity according to what the market needs. If these change, the modules can easily be used for another product. In other words, we are building flexibility into the automation process, and in this fashion drastically diminishing the capital expenditures in the factory," says Jönsson.

While developments in industrial automation are unstoppable, and are following advances in IT, there is a latent worry in the business that factory procedures are getting over-engineered.

In fact, there have been cases in recent history in which manufacturing plants have gone over to robotic assembly, only to realize that manual labor was much more efficient.

According to Professor Kinnander, from Chalmers, truck manufacturer Scania decided to partially automate an axle factory in Falun, Sweden in the late 80s because of a shortage of workers. Unfortunately, axle assembly was a difficult task for the robots. The product was not designed for automatic assembly, and after seven years, the factory returned to manual assembly.

BOX: Automation. What is it?

Automation is basically a broad array of processes, products and systems that work in harmony to streamline the manufacturing process. It includes robotics, conveyor systems, programmable logic controllers, computerized controls, production planning, and process optimization.

Key to successful automation is software that allows managers to make decisions about their production. This software has many different trade names, but basically it encompasses enterprise resource planning, supply chain management, and customer relationship management.

According to AMR Research, a consultancy, the market for enterprise resource planning was estimated in 2002 to be worth USD 50 billion, up from USD 10 billion in 1997.

Once the managers have decided what they are going to make and how much, automatic processes in the factory kick in to control production. There, different kinds of controls perform logic functions such as the sequential starting and stopping of motors on conveyor systems, controlling process for mixing batched products, and general processing of signals generated at the machine level. Having all of these levels in precise harmony and communicating seamlessly is the goal of industrial automation.