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Three key benefits of a modern flexible manufacturing system By Oliver Hammel, Managing Director, Business Unit Technology China

Flexible Manufacturing System

In a world where customized metal cutting productions are quickly becoming the norm, manufacturers are turning to modern systems that are flexible enough to change at the push of a button.

There is a world of difference between today’s modern manufacturing systems and their predecessors. In a constantly changing business environment, manufacturers must be agile enough to meet customers’ requirements, including here in China where production demands are becoming more varied and highly customized.

We are seeing that manufacturers, not only those in aviation, drive mechanism and automotive industries, are constantly trying to find the best ways to manage their production processes more efficiently, while finding the correct balance between time and cost factors.

Flexibility in manufacturing means the ability to deal with fast changing product types, production volumes, variations in components assembly and differences in process sequence. From the feedback of many manufacturers I have spoken with, especially here in Asia, the following are the key reasons why businesses are rapidly adopting flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) into their operations:

 

An FMS helps manage manufacturing resources like time and equipment utilization to manufacture a new or existing products. The advantages of having an FMS in place include reduced manufacturing costs by increasing productivity and machine efficiency, improved and stable quality of the products, and shorter and more accurately scheduled lead times.

With the right solutions in place, modern FMS adopters have said that they have improved production efficiencies of up to 200% while at the same time reduced lead times by over 20%. A modern FMS can help a company streamline their manufacturing processes and by utilizing professional automation engineering design, get more efficiency out of their production lines.

While we still see a lot of production lines handling large quantity and fixed components, today’s market is seeing an increasing demand for enhanced FMS to produce small to medium quantity components and of varying specifications. 

In the past, FMS were often associated with producing small batches of components often requiring long processing time. Mostly FMS have been limited to industries such as aerospace, aviation, prototyping as well as die and mold-making industries.

However, thanks to improved technology and innovative systems integration, today’s FMS methods can adapt much faster and more flexible to ever changing workpieces. Automatic adaptable gripper and fixture solutions, flexible storage spaces, inline- and closed-loop measuring and quality controls as well as the implementation of cutting-tool management handled by the same FMS made it possible.

So nowadays, this technology can be used by a larger segment of industries including automotive, medical, railway train and power industries.

To some extent, I do agree with sceptics that it is not easy to achieve both high flexibility and a high automation grade at the same time in most production lines. It requires a tremendous manufacturing- and process know how – not only about one particular product to be manufactured, but about an entire potential value chain covered by a company.

Almost all manufacturers are nowadays equipped with ERP, PDM, CAD and CAM systems to support their individual value chain. To gain full efficiency out of an FMS, it’s crucial to embed these existing solutions seamlessly into the workshop floor and to the FMS.

Of course, once being equipped with an FMS system, you don’t want to make any manual adjustments on your machine tool. So the planning, programming and sourcing must be done accurately before you start to manufacture.

As this was 10 years ago still a highly engineering intense process, nowadays these integrations have become feasible and affordable, thanks to standardized interfaces and protocols what many understand as “Industry 4.0”.

Therefore, a modern FMS becomes an interlink in-between the planning, engineering and programming departments and the manufacturing workshop floor. Providing full transparency on every single process step along the entire value chain.

How does a business successfully adopt a modern FMS approach?

You may be asking yourselves: is modern FMS a good solution for our business and how would we actually go about adopting a modern FMS?

To give you an example, we recently worked with Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries (Nantong) Transmission Machinery Co., Ltd., which manufactures products including drive mechanisms and precision systems like reducers, gear machines and dynamic positioning systems.

Several years ago, the company was looking to enhance overall production output and product quality as their customers’ needs became increasingly diversified. We worked with ZPMC, listening closely to their needs (and those of the market) and helped them design an optimal integrated program and flexible automation solution to ensure that ZPMC’s customized production of about 20 different work pieces ran efficiently and at the highest quality.

Changing from one batch to another is no longer a cost driving issue, planning accurately the production time is possible and all this with highest quality.

ZPMC, along with many other businesses, have invested into their manufacturing capabilities and benefiting of implementing a modern FMS in their process. There will be no way around for competitive manufacturers across Asia adopting this approach in the near future.  

Are you in a similar situation whereby your manufacturing processes are struggling to keep up with today’s fast-paced market demands? Would a Flexible Manufacturing System be a solution for you?

Oliver Hammel

About the author

Oliver Hammel is DKSH’s Managing Director of Business Unit Technology in China. His range of technological expertise includes high-tech systems, products and applications in the areas of manufacturing and production, energy, research and food and beverage. He has vast experience with the Asian markets having spent the last seven years working in the region.