How to Tackle Obstacles and Achieve Scalable Production
POSTED 12/13/2022 | By: Stevan Dobrasevic, Director Product Marketing
Revising or supplanting decades-old, traditional manufacturing processes is more difficult than anyone would prefer, and unfortunately, it can hinder progress on establishing resilient, scalable production—something everyone is vying for today.
But there is a way forward. Shifting away from a traditional automation approach to one that’s based on an intelligent platform is how manufacturers start to chip away at all-too common obstacles.
Obstacle #1: Not enough skilled manufacturing engineers
Engineers are a vital part of any manufacturing operation, but there’s a shortage of them today that’s causing a massive bottleneck for manufacturers.
A traditional automation system, for example, involves an assembly line that is integrated using various components, which have unique requirements and have to be programmed by engineers to form the assembly sequence. There is a lot of complexity involved with getting each line right, including:
- Different systems: An automated assembly line typically consists of programmable logic controllers (PLCs), industrial computers and robot controllers. Each of these has a different workflow for programming, and the programming languages and tools can vary from vendor to vendor, too. This makes the controls engineering task very challenging and time consuming.
- Different approaches: There are countless ways to attack traditional automation, with every engineer having their own preferred tools and workflows, which can be difficult to manage. Many manufacturing companies hire system integrators or external contractors to manage the complexity and do the work for them, though they’re also facing the same skills shortage problem.
An approach based on an intelligent platform, such as the Bright Machines Microfactory, alleviates some of the pain of the skills shortage gap by offering:
- Standard architecture: Software-first platforms like ours provide a standard architecture and a common workflow that eliminates the need to navigate different engineering styles. Everyone is working within the same system that uses the same programming approach and tools, immediately aligning all experts.
- Pre-integration work: A high level of pre-integration work is completed upfront, meaning that software drivers have been created for the hardware components. This gives the platform a plug-and-play capability, making the hardware components easier to integrate when creating an automated line.
- Greater efficiency: A standard architecture paired with pre-integration perks work together as a productivity multiplier. Controls engineers can work together more efficiently and support more lines.
Obstacle #2: Inefficiency caused by regional site differences
Traditionally, manufacturers follow a decentralized model allowing individual sites to implement automation on their own, where they often engage with local system integrators to automate lines on a short-term, project-specific basis. This results in many one-off custom implementations, which require various engineers to be on staff at each site to ensure everything runs smoothly. If an issue occurs and the maintenance engineer at a particular site is unavailable, it’s difficult for another engineer to come in and quickly understand the issue because the system is built differently.
An intelligent microfactory, on the other hand, helps bridge operations by:
- Common architecture: Utilizing the same hardware and software building blocks across all sites and lines provides a simplified environment for staff. It’s easier to train new employees. And in times of peak demand, staff can be shared among sites to help with load balancing. And because there is uniformity for the method and the type of data collected across lines—it’s easier to get visibility across the entire enterprise and benchmark for best practices.
- Spare parts inventory: Instead of buying spare parts for one specific line at one specific plant, manufacturers can have the same inventory and share resources across all plants, knowing everyone is trained on the same systems. This allows for faster servicing and makes scaling production (in either direction) much, much easier. And it provides ongoing cost savings as parts can be purchased in larger quantities and with increased purchasing power.
Obstacle #3: Difficult to get CapEx approval
Getting any purchase out of the CapEx budget approved typically requires several rounds of review. Expected costs and expected savings are estimated and the payback time is calculated.
To perform this type of analysis for traditional automation, the capacity required for the automated line needs to be estimated. In today’s dynamic markets, it may not be possible to pin down the required capacity with reasonable certainty. But once it’s set, it’s difficult to change it, making the investment riskier. This makes companies hesitant to invest.
Alternatively, Bright Machines Brightware Platform allows manufacturers to:
- Run multiple products on the same line: The same automated line can support running dozens of product variants as a software recipe for each variant provides the specific assembly instructions needed to assemble that variant. This makes product changeovers very easy and quick for operators to perform and provides flexibility to change the build mix as demand changes.
- Reuse the automation equipment on new lines: When a line is no longer needed, the equipment can be reused. Using software to reconfigure the equipment, line changeovers can be accomplished quickly and help extend the useful life of the equipment.
For any manufacturer aiming to overcome decades-long obstacles and achieve truly scalable production, an intelligent platform is the clear path forward.