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  • Writer's pictureGermán Villalobos


Updated: Oct 27, 2022


By: Germán Villalobos

The VP of manufacturing of an industrial group with a global presence, invited me to talk with him, the CEO and the board of directors, about what is the next most innovative and disruptive scenario, but at the same time currently applicable, in robotics and automation. He asked me, in his phone call, how long could I investigate and develop the subject, I told him that 30 min, after a few seconds of silence he answered me - Ok, I'll tell them that you are ready, I’ll see you in 30 days. These are my notes on the subject.

The manufacturing and mass production lines have been used and improved since the Ford Model-T factories to date, many resources, effort and talent have been invested in developing the best techniques and the most advanced technologies, including robots and automation equipment, to make them increasingly efficient and productive. However, nowadays the disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence let to reconfigure the traditional systems and make a complete change that allows a new and evolved kind of production, more efficient and flexible, in the form of a matrix.

In the manufacturing lines, the flow of materials is designed with a specific path following the processes flow step by step in the sequence that has been previously established, looking for and achieving in most cases, great efficiencies. Robots give more flexibility to the production lines, being the heart of flexible manufacturing systems, with little interaction and collaboration, most of them, to prevent people from being hurt, confining them to cells with safety fences, prioritizing, as it must be, safety first. But at a cost, until recently hidden, of productivity that collaborative robots have uncovered, letting robot-person collaboration and interaction to enhance and greatly improve outputs, without reducing people's safety.

In the current and near future production lines there will be some cells, due to the nature of their processes, that will continue to be enclosing the robots, to let them work and maintain the safety, but the new technologies are in the direction of collaboration for secure processes and interaction for less secure processes, eliminating those fences. Other technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), automatically guided vehicles (AGV) and artificial intelligence (AI) are letting us to question a change in the traditional systems and think about other different forms of manufacturing, taking advantage of this collaboration and interaction, redefining the current concepts of robotic cells, production lines and FMS.

A good example of a change in the traditional system are the AGVs that are letting the manufacturing lines to change to a flexible cell matrix. The conveyor belts in many of the processes are being exchanged for the flow of materials and tools using AGVs instead, which together with the AI let to determine the best “routes”, perhaps the fastest or shortest way, avoiding traffic jam, saturation in occupied cells or even intermediate inventory. It is not difficult to perceive the savings and profits that are obtained in the same way when Google Maps suggests a faster and safer route to get to a destination. The algorithms and quantitative methods will be able to confirm of what magnitude.

The AI will be also applied even more, with the use of more intelligent production management software, letting to have neutral cells in a production matrix system, configuring the cells that are closer, free or with more capacity, and even physically closer to the exit, and dispatch the AGVs with the tools or materials to start production from a just one product to large production batches. The AI will help to finding the fastest, safest and most reliable ways of flexible production.

The AGVs and cobots are now a fundamental part of these possible changes that are coming as FMS in a matrix. As in their time the control systems (PLCs) and robots, were for the production lines in the traditional FMS.

Several companies are developing specialized software for flexible manufacturing management more intelligent and in the cloud, with a focus on matrix methods instead of lines, allowing the increasing application of the above-mentioned technologies, making in my opinion, a possible virtuous circle of development and application of new technologies for new types of flexible manufacturing systems. Now, very important brands such as SAP, Rockwell, Oracle and Siemens, among other large companies, are showing that they are moving forward in this regard.

As I said before, the advantages in savings, greater flexibility and productivity are easily perceived and it will not be a problem to quantify them in each case. These technologies envision great advantages and ensuring good ROI.

The FMS will continue evolving, starting with hybrid line systems with the matrix system, even one cell at a time. It is expected that in less than 10 years most of the factories will use this new model. It is an exciting path that we are beginning, and it is a pleasure to move forward with my clients in this direction.

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