By Stuart Coulton, Marketing Manager, OMRON Electronics Ltd

Every year, a number of words drop out of the dictionary. That is to say, they become obsolete. ‘Slubberdegullion’ (a slobbering or worthless fellow) and ‘groaking’ (watching someone longingly while they eat), are two that are now considered obsolete by lexicographers.

It might not be imminent, but my prediction is that one day, the term ‘production line’ will fall into disuse and join them in the obsolete camp.

Across all processing industries, there is a movement from mass production to High-Mix Low-Volume (HMLV) manufacturing or – at its most extreme – personalisation.

This isn’t a change that has happened overnight – the shift to smaller batches and more frequent changeovers has been underway for years.

What has changed in a very short space of time, however, is the importance of e-commerce as a channel to market. Online retail sales have exploded since 2019, and are expected to hit $7.500 trillion globally by 2025. This has put unprecedented strain on the manufacturing sector, as the expectation is to produce on-demand with zero defects and full traceability.

Say farewell to the production line

Producers are finding that the conventional production line, which is so well suited to high volume mass production, isn’t compatible with a HMLV manufacturing approach. A traditional line just isn’t designed to take account of subtleties in demand whilst maintaining commercially viable levels of efficiency. Today, manufacturing needs to be flexible to be able to respond quickly.

In the past, building flexibility into a production operation generally involved quick change parts and more manual intervention. At a time when labour shortages have hit crisis point, this isn’t an option. Instead, this personalised production approach requires systems that are flexible by design – a goal that can be achieved through the development of an autonomous and collaborative factory eco-system.

That means embracing the concepts of synchronicity and modularity. Rather than assuming that production has to be linear, with operations taking place sequentially, manufacturers need to consider an approach that involves multiple process stations that, although inter-connected, are independent rather than inter-dependent, and can be utilised non-sequentially. Only by tearing up the production line design rulebook will manufacturers reach a position of true agility.

There are three key elements that need to be addressed in order for a business to achieve a collaborative and autonomous factory: technology, people and discipline.

The technology: game changers and game enablers

Robotic technology has seen the advent of collaborative and autonomous robots, while Industry 4.0 has introduced an entire suite of evolving technologies, from big data and cloud computing to Augmented Reality (AR) and Internet of Things (IoT). All of these technologies have huge potential to add value and create flexible workflows going forwards, but the challenge is using them effectively. Take big data, for example, there is loads of data available on the factory floor but how do production managers identify the useful data and utilise it effectively? The key here is having not just the game changing technology but also ‘game enablers’, in other words a proven industrial automation platform and solid partners with experience of technologies such as 5G, Edge AI (Artificial Intelligence) and data analytics.

The people: from automate to replace to automate to empower

The ingredient that is too often overlooked is people. Ultimately, this approach has the potential to empower workers – to enable them to upskill and to have more interesting and better paid jobs. An autonomous and collaborative factory will have fewer workers than a conventional factory, but those people who are involved will no longer have to perform repetitive mechanical tasks – the robots can execute those.

But day-to-day running of the factory is just one aspect of the ‘people’ consideration. The other is the need for people to implement next generation technologies and automation projects. At present a massive gap exists within manufacturing when it comes to IT, comms and technical skills. In research conducted by OMRON, close to 90% of heads of IT said they would rely on external consultants to navigate through DX and Industry 4.0. In this context, partnerships have never been more important and any project will need to be a three-way collaboration between manufacturer, technology provider and system integrator.

The discipline: think beyond, start small, scale fast

The journey to collaborative and autonomous manufacturing is exactly that: a journey. Moving from proof of concept to a position where you are deriving value from a system takes time. And it can’t be rushed. Businesses need to think carefully about what technology they want, how they are going to scale it up from a cost and risk perspective and how they are going to secure buy-in from their people. That is why we advise our customers to think big but start small and then scale fast. There is no point in rushing out and spending £400,000 on mobile robots because all that will achieve will be to alienate people. Start small, prove the concept, get people on board and then scale up, would be our advice.

For the past few months, Omron’s Flexible Manufacturing Roadshow has been travelling across Europe, giving manufacturers the opportunity to experience a wide range of solutions for the factory of the future. These include flexible palletising, autonomous material transportation and flexible human-machine collaboration, all underpinned by full traceability.

Robotic technology has seen the advent of collaborative and autonomous robots

An autonomous and collaborative factory will have fewer workers than a conventional factory, but those people who are involved will no longer have to perform repetitive mechanical tasks such as palletising.

Stuart Coulton, Marketing Manager UK & Ireland, OMRON Electronics Ltd