Adaptable assembly

Production adaptability, or the ability to change over to an entirely different product, has been brought into sharp focus. From vacuum manufacturers to F1 racing teams, manufacturers of all kinds stepped up to the plate during the upheavals of early 2020. This firmly underlines the benefits that flexibility and adaptability bring to production lines, not only during unprecedented events, but in response to other market pressures. Anthony Bisseker, head of operations at automation parts supplier EU Automation, explains what goes into achieving an adaptable production line.

Modern production lines are highly tuned. A great emphasis is put on producing high-quality product as fast as possible, while using the minimum of energy and material. Any weaknesses lead to longer lead times, tighter budgets and lower margins. In theory, every different part ideally works perfectly with its neighbours.

This applies to some manufacturers more than others. Food manufacturers regularly tackle rapidly fluctuating demand, seasonal changes and other market perturbances. Imagine the crop of sugar beet is particularly large that year, for instance, and needs processing before it spoils; a sugar manufacturer must have the ability to adapt and adjust its production in a way to overcome these hurdles.

Contrast that with industries with more predictable demands, such as hardware manufacturers. These invest heavily in embedding and optimising their processes to squeeze out every last penny of efficiency.

Breaking the habit

Manufacturing adaptability is a sliding scale, ranging from completely inflexible systems like chemical processing at one extreme, to systems where there may be no defined product at all, such as 3D printing.

The phenomenon of 3D printing over recent years just highlights how adaptable many production lines can be. Just a couple of decades ago, manufacturing adaptability was far harder to achieve, as specific processes would likely have specifically designed machines to perform them. 

One example is with stamping or casting of metal parts, for instance car chassis components, where each product requires a bespoke die or mould. Changing such a production line over to a new product would require designing, testing and implementing brand new tools. All these steps take time, which delays production of the new product.

Many of these steps previously required in redesigning industrial processes can now be completely avoided. Lasers can cut many previously stamped parts while CNC can completely automate woodwork, and parts of almost any shape can be 3D printed.

It makes no difference to the machine whether it’s cutting car components, ventilator parts or anything else besides — fundamentally, these modern automated systems only ever see raw CNC data. Manufacturers employing these modern techniques multiply their processing speeds, dramatically reduce wasted material and improve worker safety. Most importantly, however, they have the potential to completely change their product at the touch of a button.

Making adaptability work

That is the ideal situation, but as with most things in engineering, it’s never quite that simple.

To be able to switch product requires the supporting infrastructure for the production line to be thorough. It could be that the new product must be moved faster through the line, which means the conveyor motors and other equipment must be up to the task. Modern data collection and monitoring software can keep watch and flag issues, but the production line must be fully integrated into these schemes if they are to be useful.

Equally, the line workers and engineers need to be trained on the subtleties of the new product. Quality assurance is often an area where human workers get directly involved, meaning it’s crucial they are well trained on what to look for, particularly when producing crucial medical components.

When given the choice between months of shutdown, or switching to a different product, I think it’s fair to assume that most would pick the latter. With a bit of planning and exploiting cutting edge techniques, it’s a far easier task than it might first appear.