Manufacturing, long associated with being labour and capital-intensive, is undergoing much-needed dramatic change. From advanced robotics in Research & Development (R&D) laboratories to computer vision in warehouses, technology, in the form of Advanced Manufacturing Systems, is streamlining every step of the manufacturing process.
For example, “lights-out manufacturing” refers to factories that operate autonomously and require no human presence. Because they do not need human supervision, they require neither lighting nor air-conditioning, and can consist of several machines functioning in the dark. While this may sound like science fiction, these kinds of factories have been a reality for more than 15 years. The Japanese robotics maker FANUC has been operating a “lights-out” factory since 2001, where robots build other robots completely unsupervised for nearly a month at a time.
Let us examine each step of the manufacturing process to learn how Advanced Manufacturing Systems can be applied in more detail.
Research and Development
From drug production to industrial design, the planning stage is crucial for mass production. Across industries, engineers are constantly testing their innovative ideas before scaling workable ones to mass production. Testing and re-testing is the essence of research and development, and the nature of mass production makes last-minute redesigns costly. Therefore, companies are exploring robotics, 3D printing, and artificial intelligence as avenues to improve the R&D process and reduce uncertainty when going into production. Moreover, most 3D printing use is directed at prototyping new technology in a fast and cost-efficient manner. For instance, the deployment of liquid handling robots in biotech firms permit high-throughput experimentation using automatic pipette systems and robotics arms in order to arrive at a winning drug combination faster and with less human error.
Resource allocation and tracking
Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software tracks resource allocation from raw material procurement all the way through customer relationship management (CRM). Yet, a manufacturing business can have so many disparate ERP systems and stored databases that the various software that store all of these can become very unwieldy to handle.
Therefore, blockchain and distributed ledger technologies (DLT) projects can aim to unite data from a company’s various processes and stakeholders into a universal data structure. Many corporate giants are piloting blockchain projects, often specifically aiming to reduce the complexity and disparities of their stored databases. When it comes to keeping track of the sourcing of parts and raw materials, blockchain can manage the disparate inflows to a factory. With blockchain, as products change hands across the supply chain, the transactions can be documented on a permanent decentralised record — reducing time delays, added costs, and human errors. A case in point is: in 2017, British Airways tested blockchain technology to maintain a unified database of information on flights and stop conflicting flight information from appearing at gates, on airport monitors, at airline websites, and in customer apps.
Production and Assembly
Modularity allows the factory to be more streamlined for customisation, as opposed to the uniformity that is traditional for conventional assembly lines. Modularity may come in the form of smaller parts, or modules, that go into a more customisable product. Presently, mass production is already refashioning itself to handle consumer demand for greater customisation and variety. 90% of carmakers in a 2016 Boston Consulting Group survey reported that they expect a modular line setup to be relevant in their final assembly lines by 2030. Modular setups will allow different models to come off the same lines.
The latest wave of robotics innovation also seems to be augmenting what a human worker can accomplish. In mass production, checking whether every product is to specification is a very dull job that is limited by human fallibility. In contrast, future factories will employ machine vision to scan for imperfections that the human eye may miss.
Robotics also focuses on other areas of warehouse automation, such as picking and palletising. To imagine a world where robots do all the physical work, one simply needs to look at the most ambitious and technology-laden factories of today. In June 2018, the Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com unveiled a fully automated storage and shipping facility in Shanghai. The factory is outfitted with twenty industrial robots that can pick, pack, and transfer packages with no human presence or oversight. Without robots, it would take as many as 500 workers to fully man this 40,000-square foot warehouse — instead, the factory requires only five technicians to service the machines and keep them working.
With e-commerce being all the rage in today’s world, some US startups such as Ready Robotics and Locus have applied the classic robotic arm to package e-commerce orders.
Transport and Delivery
Farther out, the advent of autonomous unmanned trucks could mean that autonomous systems will deliver, depalletise, and charge upon receipt of an invoice. This will bring greener, more efficient movement, as well as more simplified accounting.
Clearly, to reach its full potential, the manufacturing industry will need to continue to embrace new technology, especially automation. Conventional methods of manufacture and management will only become increasingly expensive and obsolete with time.
Have we managed to pique your interest in Advanced Manufacturing Systems? We certainly hope so! To deepen your knowledge in this latest trend, click here to find out more about the courses we have available!