In The Future of Manufacturing in the United States, pre-visualization of new products, having a flexible factor floor, and collecting and using factor floor data are just three of many aspects of the future of manufacturing. But the underlying question regarding the factory of the future is; what impact does the factory of the future have on the value stream?
The value stream consists of the customer, the manufacturer, and their suppliers.
The manufacturer’s portion of the stream includes sales, engineering, manufacturing, and service. Within the manufacturing group, the stream includes labor, materials, machines and facilities.
Let’s explore how pre-visualization, flexible factor floors, and data collection impact the value stream.
If the new paradigm within the marketplace is to present new products on an ever-shrinking timetable, then pre-visualization is a way to accomplish this.
Currently, engineering software enables a manufacturer to create photo-realistic renderings and simulations allowing a manufacturer to present new concepts to a limited set of customers. This capability provides the means to have multiple versions and quicker changes without making physical prototypes.
But, what kind of experience can the customer have when looking at a 3-D rendering on a 2-D screen?
Virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) will take reviewing product concepts a step further by presenting an experience with physical feedback mechanisms enabling the customer to judge usability and serviceability.
Ultimately, the time to market is the difference between commercial success and a money pit for a physical product. So, let’s hope that these technologies continue to make the strides they have thus far.
The above is the customer part of the value stream, but can pre-visualization assist other areas?
Yes, it can, and does now.
The same technology being used to develop the virtual products is being used to develop the virtual work area to manufacture the new product.
Workstation design; parts, sub-assembly, tool, and automation placement verification; and packaging can all be simulated. Machining, welding, and coating simulations can be performed to determine total TAKT times.
Again, the current limit is judging a 3-D world on a 2-D screen. VR and AR will take this to the next level.
Flexible Factory Floor
At the same time, the concept of “Mass Customization” was permeating the business literature researchers were studying what it takes to be flexible on the factory floor. At that time, the conclusion was in many respects:
Operational flexibility is determined primarily by a plant’s operators and the extent to which managers cultivate, measure, and communicate with them.1
Many companies have successfully made the transition to becoming flexible on the shop floor – either by planned effort or sheer necessity. In either case, the result is customers ultimately receive the product in the configuration they value as best for their use.
But, being flexible in the factory impacts other areas within the value stream. The concept only works when all the back-office systems are setup properly.
Sales must be able to propose their products quickly and efficiently to meet the customer’s request. When the customer orders the product, the order must be entered in a timely fashion to allow the rest of the business systems to function as quickly. For future-looking aspects, they must be able to forecast sales on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis depending on the shifting tides of the business cycle.
Engineering must design the parts, assemblies, and the finished products to utilize the man, machine, and utilities of the factory floor. They also must continue the pre-visualization tools discussed above for success.
The materials group needs to work with their vendors to provide the “right-sized” inventory volumes to handle the forecast that sales provided, as well as, reduce the amount of valuable floor space consumed.
As discussed previously, the future of improved flexibility will involve more and more automation; especially, when that automation can be easily trained to perform multiple tasks. Automation doesn’t always mean the use of robots.
The use of all forms of computer-controlled devices will continue to grow as they become easier to use ─ and less expensive. Automated parts delivery carts; multi-use, automated gauging and testing stations; and multi-use machining cells will carry the flexible factory forward.
Collecting data is one thing. Being able to use that data is another.
The use of sensors within the factory was discussed previously showing the benefits to the company, but how does data collection assist the other areas of the value stream?
If properly equipped and well enough designed, the customer’s product will assist the user to know that it is functioning properly and providing all the outputs the company desires. The product will also tell the user when preventative maintenance is needed and can assist the OEM in troubleshooting an issue without having to send a technician.
All this data collection has, in some people’s opinion, a dark side.
It makes the machinery more complex, harder and more expensive to repair, and more expensive to own and operate. However, if designed properly, the machine will show the customer in the long run that these perceived issues were not the case.
Just like home appliances “calling home” when there is a problem, the future of industrial machinery will include the ability to contact local service companies to schedule maintenance automatically, or at the very least encourage the service technician to interact with the customer.
They will also have the ability to adjust their operation based on internal sensors’ output to prevent failures of all types – minor or catastrophic.
Back to the manufacturer making the customer’s product, the customer will be able to track their specific order throughout the manufacturing process. Whether that is via an online system, or being able to contact a customer representative that could view the progress within the factory.
The future of manufacturing in the United States is now, in many respects, but it will continue to shift to gain the most value within the stream as technology improves and the adoption rate of these technology advancements increases.
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