High-mix manufacturing has been looking for direction for years. However, the demands of a factory floor can often make finding that kind of direction difficult on a day-to-day basis. Highly varied orders, huge swings in production needs, key relationships that must be maintained to retain loyal customers – high-mix, low-volume manufacturing is a team effort in ways that mass manufacturing firms simply don’t have to consider. 

While many of the lessons of mass manufacturing don’t apply in high-mix productions, practices like lean manufacturing have gained popularity among “high-product-mix” firms. At the same time, it can be hard to generate more labor productivity, reduce waste and identify high-return investments when constant change is the norm. In these types of circumstances many have simply said: “why bother going lean at all?”

That’s why high-mix manufacturing needs to take things a step further – not with process management, but with standalone technologies that suit their unique needs. By giving their relationships, their cells and their unique processes a greater degree of autonomy and efficiency, high-mix firms can focus on responding to all the demands they get as efficiently as possible, leading to faster delivery, lower cost of production and increased productivity and profitability.

In this article, you won’t just come to understand how high-mix manufacturers can become more autonomous, but also apply that sense of autonomy to their processes, materials handling, training and engineering management and more.

What is Industrial Autonomy?

“Industrial Autonomy” is a state of self-sufficiency that applies to every level of your manufacturing process: individuals, machines, cells, production lines, whole facilities and supply chains have all the equipment and process capabilities they need to get their jobs done in the fastest, most efficient way possible.

In high-mix manufacturers, the most critical aspect of this is to limit changeover time and downtime. Because switching between products is often the biggest cost center for many high-mix firms, using the concept of industrial autonomy to minimize this cost is your quickest path to greater growth and profitability. 

In order to accomplish this in the future, most high-mix manufacturers will rely on using autonomous industrial robots to a greater degree. These robots effectively program themselves to such a degree that they are able to execute complex operations in unstructured environments, all in or nearly in real-time.

These kinds of robots are already available for a variety of industrial spray and finishing applications. As industrial autonomy becomes achievable for the world’s leading high-mix manufacturing firms, more applications can be expected to come online over time. 

Yokogawa has defined industrial autonomy on the basis of operations, but this process has excluded a variety of new technologies that have already come online in the manufacturing space. Source: Yokogawa

What are Autonomous Industrial Processes?

How do solutions like autonomous industrial robots help your process lines and cells increase productivity and reduce changeover and downtime?

Consider your most skilled employee. They might be in your shop for 20 or 30 years. They know the in’s and out’s of every part of their job. They’ve forgotten more than your newest hires will ever know. They know when expectations aren’t realistic and, conversely, when a job isn’t done to the best quality that can be achieved. What do these workers offer that is unique among all others? Precision to your tasks as is it required.

Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer workers like this as time goes on, and they’re certainly not making any more of them! Labor competition is actually the biggest challenge to high-mix manufacturing firms because they are that much more dependent on skilled laborers than mass manufacturers are to meet their productivity goals.

And while newly high unemployment rates may bring more people to your factory floor, how can you be sure they’ll stay there once the economy picks up again? There are likely to be more than 2.2 million unfilled skilled positions in North American manufacturing by 2028 – this gap won’t be made up just from closed restaurants and retail stores. 

All-Axis Machining has started down the road to autonomy with Universal Robots+, click here to get inspired by their story

Just as every other industry is adapting to the “new normal”, high-mix manufacturers will need to figure out how to take their destiny into their own hands. So while firms may be spending hours, effort and time to train new workers and get them to an effective level of productivity, you may still be looking at hiring challenges if and when the job market improves again.

This kind of investment isn’t practical – particularly when skilled workers can’t meet the productivity and output of a well-programmed robot to begin with. That’s why, for your own autonomy, you need to add robots and automation, but not as they’ve been known before. 

Self-programming robots, for instance, can already automate batch or conveyor spray and finishing processes – some of the most challenging and difficult human-centric tasks present in high-mix manufacturing today. Similar solutions exist for welding and more, so as more of your critical processes achieve new possibilities through automation, you can free up your workers to handle and coordinate things while they simply “press play” as a robot’s skilled output is needed. 

Autonomous Materials Handling

An added step to all this is, of course, autonomous materials handling. Now, in a factory making cars or smartphones, every possible element of materials handling is automated in order to create the most possible efficiency for one product produced over the course of five to ten years. 

This kind of automation, while admirable, simply isn’t possible in high-mix environments. Currently, you may have workers moving parts from cell to cell on carts or loading material onto conveyors for individual processes depending on how requests are managed or if you’re using a “pull” model – one lean manufacturing principle that does strongly apply to high-mix environments. 

In the future, this kind of job may also be robotized, but fundamentally it requires autonomy and flexibility to do so. Designing a production facility around these types of processes is a cost-intensive task, but whether it’s Boston Dynamics or Otto Motors, autonomous mobile robots are evolving in a way that is gradually becoming more useful to industrial manufacturers. 

Ultimately, a self-programming robot needs to take into account every aspect of a process in parallel to find the optimum outcome. Procedural self-programming simply won’t provide the adaptability the way a human does, so we at Omnirobotic have adopted a unique approach through our Shape-to-Motion™ Technology.

Now, the true difference maker here isn’t in how you autonomously manage materials handling, but rather how your processes respond to the way materials are handled. For instance, with a self-programming robot working in real-time to spray parts on an overhead conveyor, you actually have a solution that works agnostic of the orientation or order in which parts are hung on your conveyor line. 

This ultimately is not just a first step to autonomous materials handling, but drastically reduces many of the quality control and rework issues so many high-mix manufacturers face – the type of issues that are also often the difference between profit and loss, and primary to reducing the costs of changeover and total downtime. 

Training and Engineering Management

Ultimately, you’re never going to fully automate any aspect of your training, engineering or management teams. In order to maximize your facility autonomy and the success of your firm overall, you need to enable these teams with processes that function autonomously. This makes their jobs easier and allows you to leverage the creativity of more people to add value to your products and processes.

What does this mean? That traditional Industry 4.0 principles could end up being quite useful here. Identifying data, formatting and sizing it as well as planning on how to both store and share it are all principles that you need to start thinking about in order to monitor process efficiency in a convenient and effective way.

Then, giving your team the tools to test and iterate on new approaches using the data you’ve generated can take you productivity to the next level, all while limiting the costs usually associated with this type of experimentation. Autonomous processes are the bedrock of this, but why?

It’s because solutions like autonomous industrial robots limit your need to structure (or restructure) your environment. This is often one of the biggest capital costs associated with the recent era of industrial automation projects, while the time associated with these sorts of transitions can be a huge impingement to your factory’s output. 

From Bedrock to Full Bloom

With autonomous industrial robots at your disposal, enhancing your team’s creativity finally creates new possibilities. Whether that’s in devoting more resource to training and R&D or simply using cloud tools like OnShape to offer flexibility and more usability in your engineering processes – being able to focus more of your resources on innovation and design once your other processes have maximal efficiency is the final step to truly thinking, functioning and acting for yourself as a high-mix manufacturer. 

For the largest firms, this also forms the bedrock of building more resilient supply chains. Think, for instance, about the flexibility you’d have when you don’t need to focus on the labor cost or capital efficiency of a particular geography or facility. Instead of centering your cost savings there, you can trust the new technology you have at your disposal and instead position yourself at the nexus between the raw materials you need and the markets you want to sell to. 

This is in many ways the best of both worlds – it won’t just enable you to become more profitable, but it will enable you to do it in the patriotic way that many have for decades been longing. 

Supply chain disruptions were already on the rise before the spread of COVID-19. Now, social distancing seems necessary for an extended term, making autonomous processes duly beneficial for both maintaining productivity and retaining flexibility depending on where the virus flares up. Source: Forbes

Declaring your Autonomy as a High-Mix Manufacturer

In all this, there is a new possibility for manufacturers of any size to gain their independence, but your action is needed to get there. First among the future opportunities you have is autonomous processes: these will add the most possible value in the fastest possible time. So, whether it’s thermal spraying and sandblasting or painting and powder coating or even welding and assembly processes, getting started with the right self-programming solutions is critical.

That’s why Omnirobotic offers a self-programming technology for robots – Shape-to-Motion™ technology – that identifies your parts and generates a unique robot motion program in real-time, allowing you to realize your most critical needs in the most efficient possible way. This is particularly necessary as skilled labor for finishing departments is still hard to find, and yet is still such an essential value-added process for most industrial products. 

Robert Ravensbergen is the Marketing Director for Omnirobotic, the sole provider of self-programming, autonomous technology for robots in high-mix spray finishing processes. With experience in SaaS and high-tech offerings since the beginning of his career, he sees autonomous industrial robots as one of the keys to future growth and prosperity for all. Contact sales@omnirobotic if you’d like to get in touch.