Consumers know what they want, and, with growth of e-commerce, they have high expectations on getting it their way. However, in the world of mass production, how does the manufacturer offer that? The answer is the adaptive machine and a batch size of one. The technology is out there to make these machines.
John Kowal, portfolio & marketing, B&R Industrial Automation, answers several questions regarding the expectations, technology and machines fulfilling the needs of a batch size of one.
Q: What is batch size one, and why is it important?
A: The digital consumer wants what they want, when and how they want it. Who wouldn’t want products that are built to their individual orders, are affordable and sustainable? That’s batch size one. It’s been an unattainable goal of manufacturing for decades because automation tends to produce a high volume of the same or very similar products, and customization comes with either a high labor cost or a long shipping lead time.
Yet, digital business models depend on meeting the online consumer’s high expectations. Meal kits are a good example, popular but labor-intensive to assemble, dampening profitability. The cost of consumer choice is also evident in the massive fulfillment centers and supply chain networks carrying the inventories required to deliver goods overnight to e-commerce customers.
What’s needed is a new form of automation, one that doesn’t depend on a sequential process but instead adapts to the product being made. This is the adaptive machine.
Q: How does the adaptive machine achieve mass customization?
A: The core of the adaptive machine is a track-and-shuttle system that independently controls individual products or kits on each shuttle. Assembly, finishing, inspection and packaging are performed at the appropriate stations while queuing is avoided by a number of schemes. Products are tracked as they travel through the system and ship direct to consumer or a retail outlet from the end of the production line.
Both the adaptive machine and robotic workstations can be collaborative, working hand-in-hand with human operators for tasks that still require intervention. The concept of changeover becomes obsolete, because each production cycle is independent. Instead of building to stock, everything is built to order. There are no finished-goods inventories and no end-of-season clearance sales.
The track concept is not new, but the software, along with affordable processing power to make it practical, is, thanks to Moore’s Law. A digital twin simulates operation, optimizing the number of shuttles, stations and paths and reconfiguring to changing requirements.
Q: Where are adaptive machines being used today?
A: In just the past few years, adaptive-machine technology has gone to work in the food-and-beverage, cosmetics, medical-device, industrial-component and consumer-electronics industries, to name a few. Adoption is both demand-driven and practical.
For example, cosmetics are totally market-driven. Consumers can design their own fragrances, shades, lipstick cases and compacts, commanding a premium price. On the other hand, surgical kits and pharmaceuticals need to be customized to the patient, serialized, tracked, traced and verified, and the adaptive-machine automation performs these tasks cost-effectively.
One of the earliest commercialized adaptive machines blends and dispenses beverages to order, fills different size bottles, applies the appropriate closures, prints personalized labels, collates and packs for shipment to the consumer.
Imagine ordering beverages for a family outing with individualized flavors, bottle sizes and everyone’s names on their bottles, and then having them shipped directly to your destination. Imagine the customer satisfaction, achieved without the inefficiencies of today’s rainbow packing process, which typically involves repacking a fixed variety of flavors at a distribution center.
The range of adaptive-machine applications is broad:
- custom orthotics and prosthetics
- medical implants and surgical kits
- athletic helmets, gloves, ski boots
- confectionary assortments and gift baskets
- eyeglasses, earbuds, hearing aids
- pharmaceutical regimens
- wristwatches, fitness bands, jewelry
- meal kits and frozen entrees
- aftermarket automotive components.
Q: Does the adaptive machine represent disruptive technology?
A: Absolutely. Alongside additive manufacturing and robotics and tying together advanced manufacturing cells, the adaptive machine’s ability to build to order means a product is not produced until it has been sold. Finished-goods inventory becomes largely unnecessary.
With radically flexible production capabilities, centralized factories can be supplanted by adaptable regional plants that can deliver locally overnight or even same day, while reducing transportation cost and energy consumption.
The online ordering experience allows the consumer to select components—for example, watch hands, stem, dial, case, watchband—literally creating the recipe used by the adaptive machine to produce the end product, replenish stock and identify trending product configurations in real time.
Q: How does the adaptive machine change machine building?
A: The change from sequential flow is most profound. Typically, fewer shuttles and simpler track configurations are required and then expected because production flow is more efficient. These requirements are determined in simulation, which also means that various production scenarios can be proven and machine designs optimized before making any capital commitment.
B&R Industrial Automation provides the simulation tools and engineering support to familiarize new machine builders and systems integrators with the capabilities of its adaptive-machine technologies. These simulations form the digital twins that will be used to model ongoing changes to the installed systems.
The track and shuttle systems bring a new level of modularity to machine design, which lends itself well to simulation and provides an inherently scalable, building-block approach.
The scalability in turn encourages repeat business for the machine builder as expanded capabilities are built on installed systems that the incumbent originally designed.
For more information about B&R Industrial Automation products, simulation tools and engineering support, please visit www.br-automation.com.