Recently, I read about a mobile phone company which mentioned that they need to adjust their manufacturing lines every three weeks due to the fluctuation in the amount of mobile phones they sell over time.Besides reducing manufacturing cost, increasing flexibility is one of the most important goals of manufacturing companies. The main reason is the non-predictable customer demands which change over time.
Let’s look at the most flexible part of a production line: humans … we are much more flexible in terms of reacting to changing conditions than robots or other automated equipment. But most manufacturing lines are highly automated.
For example, an automotive body-in-white line (the part of the manufacturing which welds or glues the sheet metal parts together) reaches automation levels up to 98 percent. Compared to this level of automation, the final assembly is mainly manual work. Several companies and research institutes are working on solutions to combine human workers with robots in the same work area to increase the level of automation on the final assembly lines … but that’s a topic for another post .
Just a few years ago each BIW line was focused on manufacturing only one car model and only one model variant. Take Audi for example. They were able to manufacture only the sedan of the Audi A4 on one particular line. Automotive companies were not able to react to market demands quickly. If a car model was successful and more customers than expected wanted to buy it, the automotive company was not able to increase supply easily. And the same goes if the car model was not as successful as expected. The lack of flexibility of the manufacturing lines is the major issue. Even with a lot of money it will take multiple months to change these lines. Audi changed the manufacturing concept and is now able to manufacture multiple car models with different variants on the same line.
With all this in mind, you might ask yourself, what is the connection to digital manufacturing?
Digital manufacturing is not enabling a flexible manufacturing just by default. Still the engineers and their ideas that are turned into innovations are leading to flexible manufacturing. But digital manufacturing tools like those in our Tecnomatix portfolio enable engineers to validate and optimize these process innovations before they go into production, instead of getting the first feedback only on the shop floor. And more than that, tools like our human model Jack, which I wrote about in previous posts, are used to reduce non-value added manufacturing time and perform ergonomic analysis.
Stay tuned for more on digital manufacturing and Tecnomatix in the next few days.