The manufacturing industry is experiencing a radical shift from the mass production of near-identical products in the early days of Henry Ford. Rather than having “a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black,” today, people want to have products that are unique and reflect their personal tastes.
Manufacturers of the future need to find new ways to add value, and customization is a key part. Below are three solutions that are allowing manufacturers to produce customized products without hindering operational efficiency.
1. Flexible automation
Flexible automation is the ability for a robot or system to be quickly and easily re-tasked to change product design. Unlike fixed (or hard) automation, flexible automation systems enable machines to multi-task and produce various products rather than being assigned a specific task.
This system reduces the machines employed and minimizes the time lost from reprogramming the sequence of operations, which is efficient for mass producing different models.
Tesla Motors Factory in Freemont, CA is an example of a modern manufacturing plant that uses the flexible automation system. It employs hundreds of general-purpose KUKA robot arms that can do everything from metal-bending to assembly.
If industrial robots are to be capable of performing tasks without constant human supervision (although robotics technicians are still required for operations and maintenance), they must be equipped with sensory feedback.
In flexible automation, a wide variety of sensors including vision systems are used to get necessary feedback with hierarchical computer control. Combined with artificial intelligence (AI), robots designed for flexible automation think and make decisions like human beings and are highly adaptive.
2. Advanced 3D printing
Although the first 3D printer was invented in 1983, 3D printing technology has only been recently adopted by manufacturing industries to mass produce custom-crafted products, such as hearing aids, aircraft parts, and shoes. In fact, Adidas announced that it will produce 100,000 pairs of Futurecraft sneakers by the end of 2018 with 3D printers.
The advantages of 3D technology include design freedom, no need for tooling, lighter parts, manufacturing footprint flexibility, and simplified assembly. 3D printing is ideal for low-volume production, in which custom-designed three dimensional solid objects are produced from a digital file.
However, when it comes to high-volume production, today’s 3D printing technology still face a number of challenges including poor print consistency, low reliability of material and build properties, limited choices of materials, and expensive raw materials.
But with new methods of 3D printing now emerging, some of these shortcomings can be overcome.
For instance, Adidas uses digital light synthesis technology in 3D printers, which can perform 100 times faster than existing polymer-based printers. This technology uses digital light projection, oxygen permeable optics, and programmable liquid resins, to produce products with much improved durability, resolution and surface finish, thus removing the need for additional processing.
Dr DeSimone, professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina, argues that all this makes digital light synthesis competitive with injection moulding, a mass-production process which has been used in factories for nearly 150 years.
And when it comes to laser-based metal printers, a new technique called bound-metal deposition has the potential to change the economics of metal printing, too, by building objects at a rate of 500 cubic inches an honour, compared to 1-2 cubic inches an hour.
3. Parametric modeling (aka mass customization)
The most significant drawback of customization in manufacturing is the lengthy product delivery times. Parametric modeling is changing this paradigm rapidly, allowing customers to receive individualized products in record time, for minimal extra cost.
Parametric modeling is a computer-aided-design (CAD) technology that can auto-generate design models given a base model. For instance, a customer can scan their foot or hand; the computer takes a few key dimensional measurements from the scan, and adjust the parametric model accordingly based on the base model. This enables manufacturers to produce tailored products, such as customized shoe.
Custom manufacturing will grow in the years to come
Custom manufacturing means workers will need new skills to succeed in this industry. Online technology courses can help prepare students for roles such as automation technician and robotics technician are available where students can learn about robot vision, PLC, automation, robotic programming, among other in-demand skills in this growing industry.