A smart move toward mass customization
Consumers are willing to pay a premium for personalized products. At the same time, increasingly responsive production technology is making it possible to create them under mass production conditions without a corresponding increase in unit cost. For manufacturers, the resulting margin boost is an enticing prospect. B&R's intelligent SuperTrak system is the reliable, industrial-grade material transport solution for flexible production lines that enable mass customization.
"Customized products have added value for consumers," says Robert Kickinger, mechatronic technologies manager at B&R, "so they're willing to pay more for them." That's what makes things like custom photo albums, which customers can create online and have delivered straight to their door, such an interesting business model. Rather than pay the lowest possible price for a traditional photo album with sleeves or adhesive pages, consumers prefer to pay several times more for a personalized item. For the manufacturer, however, these customized products must meet one condition: "They need to be suitable for highly automated mass production," notes Kickinger, "or else the unit costs are too high to be profitable."
One in a million, not one of a million
The transition from simple reproduction to customer-specific production is already complete within the printing industry. The shift was facilitated in large part by the advent of industrial digital printing, which eliminated the pre-press stage and enabled the development of highly flexible post-press machinery.
Automated post-press equipment processes the variable output of a digital printing press and allows batch-size-one production of custom photo books with mass-production efficiency. But, if this works so well in the printing industry, what's taking it so long to catch on in other areas?
The crux of custom production
What many segments still lack is the necessary production machinery, though the race to achieve added value through product personalization is already well underway. The trend past decorative personalization toward products with custom geometric dimensions is sweeping across numerous industries – but at this point still involves manual intervention at numerous steps along the way.
The machine still has to be stopped to change over between product variants, eating up valuable production time and squandering the benefits of mass production. Window manufacturing is a perfect example of this. In addition to a range of standard sizes, today's builders are also able to order windows with custom dimensions. "Production of the individual window components is efficiently automated," notes Kickinger, "except that every changeover requires a worker to step in and adjust the size from, say, 130 to 140 centimeters."
Toward mass customization
At least in terms of production machinery, there are still some obstacles to be cleared on the road to mass customization. "The only way to achieve mass-production levels of efficiency is with automated responsiveness," explains Kickinger. Advances in technology now offer the means to do this.
- Modern IT systems make it possible for the customer to interact directly with the manufacturing process and trigger production simply by placing an order.
- Automated, software-controlled changeover processes provide the kind of responsiveness that makes production profitable even at batch size one.
"When you combine these two possibilities, you're able to manufacture customized products under mass production conditions without a corresponding increase in unit cost," says Kickinger. "What we're looking at is a whole new generation of production technology."
It all rides on product transport
Flexible batch-size-one manufacturing operations need machinery that can adapt automatically without operator intervention. The frame of a 140-centimeter window is larger than that of a 130-centimeter window, and the machine must be able to account for this size difference. An intelligent transport system is an ideal way to implement a motion control solution with this level of responsiveness. Unlike conventional belts with rigid timing, an intelligent transport system moves and positions each product individually – with variable target positions, speeds and clearances.
The devil's in the details
"Such transport systems are surprisingly scarce in modern plants considering the actual level of demand there is for them," says Kickinger. The technological maturity of what is currently available on the market may have a lot to do with this. "The existing technology has severe shortcomings when faced with industrial conditions." The task of adjusting the guide rollers, for example, can often be extremely time consuming. Some systems have insufficient load capacity; others lack the necessary safety functions.
"Although what they need is true integration, many manufacturers struggle with complex system architectures that require gateway modules," reports Kickinger. The guideway and other components are prone to wear, resulting in frequent service downtime. These flawed implementations have stunted the growth of what is an otherwise a vital technology.
Industrial transport technology
ATS SuperTrak from B&R has been specially developed for 24/7 operation in harsh industrial environments. The system is reliable, safe and remarkably service-friendly. "The fact that shuttles can easily be replaced without having to disassemble the track is a huge advantage of the B&R system," explains Kickinger. This results in a very low mean repair time and increases the productivity of the entire line.
Seamless integration of CNC and robotics
Hard real-time synchronization between shuttles and all types of servo axes, CNC and robotics systems guarantees high quality production output. SuperTrak dovetails perfectly with robotics and other CNC-controlled components to form an automated production unit.
SuperTrak optimizes the changeover times for different products manufactured on the same line. As soon as a new option is selected on the operator panel or via a production planning system, the transport system automatically switches over to the new product. Extended downtime for mechanical changeover between products is either reduced substantially or eliminated entirely. With its high load capacity, SuperTrak can handle heavier products as well.
On the demand side, the product personalization trend is driven by consumer expectations – particularly among a generation of digital natives. On the supply side, the continuing evolution of mechatronics is giving rise to a new generation of production technology for mass customization. "SuperTrak delivers the reliable, industrial-grade motion control that will advance this highly responsive production technology to its rightful place in the smart factory landscape," concludes Kickinger.