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Top 5 Flexible Manufacturing Systems

Flexible manufacturing systems are systems that permit manufacturers to more rapidly respond to change than systems that are entirely fixed in place or only able to address a single type of process in a single type of materials handling scenario. These systems are primarily focused on improving the ability of production lines to adapt to changeover or the ability of machine cells to adapt to different tasks – including redundancy between machines where output requires it.

What can it do for you? Flexible manufacturing ultimately allows lower-tier mass manufacturers, high-mix manufacturers and manufacturers exploring mass customization to more rapidly respond to new designs, new orders or batches or even entire market changes in themselves with little incremental cost to their existing production base.

This can sound too good to be true, but it really isn’t – it’s just too smart to pass up. Here’s a few examples of flexible manufacturing systems that almost any manufacturer can benefit from. 

Autonomous Mobile Robots

Autonomous mobile robots are robots that can localize and navigate themselves within a contained environment. Although broadly speaking, this is the same technology as self-driving cars, AMRs (as they’re more casually known) have come online faster since they operate at lower speeds and in more predictable environments than busy civil roadways.

In the factory context, the real benefit is that they can be routed at the click of a button (or tap of a screen) from cell to cell, reducing the overall intensity of human materials handling labor, but also making it significantly easier to recover from unexpected changes and manage backlogs or bottlenecks of material without taking up space and creating disorganization in production.

At the same time, this technology can create enough efficiency to work around a “linear” cell layout within a factory. While conveyor belts and traditional process engineering will often dictate linear material handling through an entire production facility, introducing flexibility between cells – as well as in where those cells are located – can allow for more adaptive order management and easier processing when there are last-minute changes, requests, or updated quality needs on parts being processed.

Autonomous Mobile Robots can offer a variety of configurations to move material around while reducing the overall costs of less value-added tasks. Source: Fetch Robotics.

Integrated CNC Machining

CNC machining has long been a flexible, beneficial and crucial part of modern manufacturing – especially where precision and high-quality outputs are required. CNC machines are among the first manufacturing solutions to be computerized, so they have led the way in allowing manufacturers to treat real-world goods a little more like data – that is to say, flexibly and focused on final deliverables. 

As many of the lean manufacturing principles that have powered manufacturing give way to greater agility, integrated machining approaches can permit more flexible and agile individual cells to manage their own set-up and changeover, decreasing the adaptation curve between activities, parts and critical value-added processes.

A variety of vendors offer and even robotize the tending of said cells. By introducing an agile cell which can send data and receive instructions through HMIs or from broader system integrations – including integrations with materials handling – manufacturers can get more done with less quagmires, roadblocks and frustrating dead-ends that consume too much human time. Easy example: when the best thing to do is wait, a machine won’t get bored.

Integrated CNC Machines offer greater agility and the ability to queue and respond to different tasks without the need for constant oversight. Source: Fastems.

Container-Based Industrial Control

In batch production or continuous movement high-mix production, segmenting and optimizing processes around the parts you’re working on is essential to actually getting the job done with a high quality final product. The settings and process needs of each part are unique, and that approach requires configuration of cells and processes according to parts, but also for those parts to be properly managed in the appropriate batches. 

Again, traditional industrial control relies on linear, high-throughput systems, but thinking about container based or segmented systems allows you to identify individual parts and groupings that permit you to ensure your machine and value-added processes are entirely optimized for the task at hand. At the same time, bringing in the concept of “pallet pooling” or flexible pallet containers enables manufacturers to more effectively organize parts to be processed, limit changeover time and keep key parts out of the way when idle.

On their way into a machine cell, pallet pooling can help parts stay organized and ordinanced no matter what else is happening in a facility – and in certain cases be extended to go between static machine cells. Source: Haas CNC.

Buffer Storage

Following up to container-based industrial control systems, generalized areas that can serve as buffer storage, queue management and more are critical to limiting the total distances between value-added process cells and to architecting those cells in the most optimal order and square footage differences.

How does buffer storage work? Well one benefit is that it can easily go vertical, making better use of vertical space you may have in a high-ceiling, single-floored manufacturing facility that lacks the infrastructure to make use of multi-floored square footage – particularly where all your heavy-duty machine needs are involved. At the same time, this kind of storage also allows you to adopt a “pull” rather than “push” model of materials handling, which can help end products get to customers faster. 

Buffer Storage is critical to altering the materials handling approach of flexible manufacturers. While it can seem to take extra floor space, the efficiency gain is well worth it. Source: Fives.

Autonomous Skilled Robots

Autonomous robots aren’t just about moving things around or tending to machines – they can actually execute skilled tasks using know-how, robotic reliability and coherent AI-based task planning to achieve higher quality outputs than ever before.

Omnirobotic supports this for value-added spray processes like paint and powder coating, as well as sandblasting and more of the necessaries for all kinds of high-mix industrial manufacturers. 

Autonomous Robotics Technology like Omnirobotic’s AutonomyOS™ allows existing robots to become autonomous by using 3D vision and AI-based task planning.

Omnirobotic’s AutonomyOS™ is the world’s only platform for truly autonomous manufacturing. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that reduce labor shortages, increase productivity, save energy, waste and rework and allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.

The real benefit here is not just that it adapts to parts as they are, but that no robot programming or jigging is required. This means more parts can be added with limited incremental costs, which doesn’t just add flexibility by overall capacity to a production line while effectively empowering existing skilled workers to get more done.

In an environment where skilled work is more scarce than ever, the flexibility of autonomous skilled robots doesn’t just enhance your work environment – it can fundamentally change your approach to work altogether.

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system.

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