The factory for the future: incorporating product variation in the production process

Mass customisation is already a familiar name in the manufacturing industry for quite some time now. Customers increasingly want smart, customised products. Therefore, manufacturers must be able to incorporate product variation into their production processes without causing a significant price increase for the end customer. In this way, variability becomes a true asset. More, it will be the roadmap for factories for the future to keep production in Flanders and possibly even bring it back.

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Flexible production systems

However, this also means that in a factory for the future the current relatively simple mechanical machines of a production environment must evolve towards complex cyber-physical systems that are mutually connected in the cloud. To meet the demand for personalised products, companies need very flexible production systems. Digital technology plays a crucial part here as it offers the right information at the right time within the production process. As such, the finishing of each product can be geared to the customer’s wishes, like options that are added to a car.

But which impact does this have on the people, who in many of these production and assembly systems still play a central part?

Cognitive and physical strain on operators

The answer to this question is twofold. First, there is the physical level. Robots are already supporting people for a number of years by taking over heavy, repetitive tasks. However, so far both were strictly separated from one another by fencing or a light barrier. When using cobots, or collaborative robots, operator and robot work together: the robot responds to the voice or touch of the operator and supports him where needed. Cobots are safe, smart and also easy to programme.

Secondly, and maybe even more important, there is the cognitive level to consider. A large variety of products inevitably means that in a traditional production environment the operator should set to work with continuously changing instructions. The challenge here is to provide the operator with the right information, in the right format and at the right time, a challenge that so far standard procedures have hardly been capable of. That is why new technologies are being introduced on the shop floor. In the factory for the future, Smart Wearables have an important part to play. Take for instance AR-glasses. These ensure that the operator can easily collect the right parts for assembling highly variable products. The glasses (literally) show what he must put in his kitting kit. This significantly reduces the error margin. Another benefit is that the operator no longer needs to consult paper instructions time and again.

Augmented-Reality

Another example of support through digital technologies are digital work instructions on a tablet. A 360° connection between the central management system, the operator, the production unit and the final product makes sure that these instructions are geared to the operator in question. If he is more experienced, he will receive less instructions. If he repeatedly makes the same error, extra attention will be paid to this.

In other words, the operator in the factory for the future will become tomorrow’s information worker.

Five benefits

Manufacturing companies working with such systems are better able to manage the increasing complexity and diversity of their product range. These systems will also offer the potential to

  1. improve the operators’ well-being
  2. reduce stress, illness and absenteeism
  3. improve the safety and efficiency of the production process – with fewer errors and a shorter learning curve
  4. reduce the cost of activities that do not add value
  5. lower the costs for training new operators and introducing new products
      

 
Flanders Make performs research into new technologies that enable companies to innovate better and faster. For applications involving human-robot interaction and the impact of new technologies on the operator, we launched our MAKE LAB, a mobile co-creation and living lab environment. Here, we can work together with companies to create new solutions and validate them for their own application.
 

Discover our Make Lab, a mobile lab for flexible assembly.

Georges Verpoorten - Project Manager
Auteur

Georges Verpoorten - Project Manager

Georges Verpoorten is project manager with Flanders Make. Georges is an Industrial Electromechanical Engineer and has over 30 years of industrial experience in various functions, ranging from product and process designer to production and process manager. At the moment, his work for Flanders Make focusses on Industry 4.0 projects for production environments.

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