Flexible manufacturing is a system that allows a certain level of adaptability, making it easy to react to changes, whether predictable or unpredictable.
This method is particularly valued in the automotive industry because it allows rapid product switches with minimum downtime. This enables the industry to respond to customer orders quickly by introducing new products effortlessly and by providing a broad product range.
Flexible production covers two main areas. On one side it focuses on use flexibility in managing resources like time and effort by developing a skill-flexible core workforce. On the other side, it provides machine flexibility which increases the resilience in processes as the manufacturing system absorbs large-scale changes such as production assortment size, capacity, and productivity.
This system stands out because it does not follow a fixed set of steps. The process changes according to efficiency and requirements. The continuousness of material flow from one machinery to another is not fixed nor is the sequence of operations.
History of flexible production
In order to understand how flexible manufacturing impacts the product life cycle, direct workforce and market circumstances, it makes sense to take a step back in the past.
Flexible production hasn’t always been a standard in manufacturing. In fact, for a long time, you could argue that production has been quite “inflexible”, especially during the era of Henry Ford, mainly distinguished by the same standard mass-production items where there wasn’t an urgent need for efficiency.
However, as soon as the Second World War disrupted the whole world, it started affecting also the manufacturing industry. With a shortage of goods and workforce, companies had to adapt by introducing new materials and technologies. The world conflict prompt also to an opening of the markets while leading to more competition.
Over the past 50 years, the need to reduce costs and cut manufacturing time in an even bigger market, with new countries competing in the space, lead to a flexible production system, making it the essential driving force, especially in the automotive industry.
In this blog post, we want to share with you what are the main advantages of flexible production and how it can allow manufactures to be the fastest on market, operating with lower total cost and greater ability to satisfy their customers.
Increased system reliability
The market is attracted by variety, both in product customization and delivery. This means that machines need to be frequently set up in order to keep up with the demand. This process however can reduce the system reliability as they operate the best when they run at a constant speed, under constant load and conditions. It is the same principle with normal vehicles. Driving on the highway doesn’t lower the life of the car as much compared to constantly stopping and restarting or traveling only short distances. A flexible manufacturing system can help minimize starting, stopping, changeover, and retooling processes.
Equipment shares the same components
In general, producers have two types of equipment: dedicated machinery and unautomated, all-purpose tools. Specific machinery can save time and costs but lacks flexibility. On the other hand, general-purpose equipment doesn’t always reach full capacity and can be expensive. Today, thanks to flexible production methods, there is another option, more efficient for mass production: using equipment that shares the same components and reconfiguring workcells in mobile workstations. Mobility across the entire manufacturing process can address fast model changes and support quick production setups.
Thanks to equipment and mobile workspaces, industries can benefit from a renewed disposition of space. Manufacturing companies don’t have to be giant plants full of heavy-duty goods and materials anymore. Property disposition can change fast as there is plenty of room for variations and implementation of continuous improvement ideas.
Reducing work-in-progress inventory can also save up space. Flexible manufacturing is particularly important for complex product production. It’s recommended for supply chain management systems involving work-in-process inventory as it helps reduce the temporary backlog.
Minimizing downtime in production is just as critical as maximizing quality. When machinery breaks down, unplanned downtime can be quite costly for the company. That’s why finding a solution that can minimize downtime is essential for business today.
While it mostly affects the equipment (costs to repair and replace spare parts in the failed machinery). It can also add up to other expenses, for example:
- Labor: Repair technician paired with the cost of operators whose work has been delayed when the station failed.
- Indirect Labor: Supervisors and managers must take time off to address setbacks caused by equipment failure and bottlenecks during production.
- Profit: Lost production time means fewer products available to sell, with orders stacking up and delivery times not met. This means a lower gross margin.
- Client Satisfaction: Downtime can reduce a company’s quality performance
and its ability to fill in orders.
Flexible productions can minimize downtime because the production line doesn’t have to shut down in order to set up a new product or replace certain parts of the equipment. By avoiding unnecessary repairs and predicting problems before they occur, machines can optimize their performance and resilience.
Less scrap and rework
In the end, flexibility during production can save costs by reducing the overall scrap and waste. Scrap is the quantity of material discarded at different stages of manufacturing. It carries with it all the value accumulated through the process and preventing it would help reduce costs. On the other hand, waste is a portion of transformation brought to the raw materials that gives no positive contribution to the value of the finished product.
Even if the percentage of annual scrap is an important metric, this information can be useful only while considering the overall picture. For example, a company with an annual scrap rate of 10% evenly distributed can be more efficient than a company scoring 5% scrap.
Having acknowledged the importance of flexibility, managers can now take advantage of the newest technology, providing practical and flexible safety solutions by robots and grippers.
Thanks to AIRSKIN®, the robots can be used flexibly, and the application can easily be moved or changed over the end-of-arm tool. And all this with maximum safety for the humans working in the immediate area.