The factory of the future is often imagined as a facility dominated by robots, such as the “lights-out” fantasy of a plant so filled with machines and robots that it doesn’t need lights to work. However, Harvard Business Review posits that the advancement that will drive the factories of the future is not automation but, instead, operations enhancements.
Authors Ron Harbour and Jim Schmidt point out that many of the operations that can be automated in an automotive factory already have been converted. For example, approximately 90 percent of the operations in the automotive paint shop are handled by robots. However, the task of painting cars remains one of the most expensive and space-intensive processes in the automotive factory. In this case, automation has not been effective in reducing costs and boosting efficiency.
Instead, automakers will have to seek these benefits through revolutionized processes. Perhaps the answer lies in 3D printing car bodies in the desired color. Manufacturing researchers also are testing a process of applying a single film over the car and baking it on, like in a pottery kiln, which would reduce the number of steps in the painting process.
In other cases, a process can be improved by combining the power of humans and robots. New collaborative robots, or cobots, are designed to assist humans with tasks that are dangerous, repetitive, or involve working in tight or hard-to-reach places.
Cobots are quickly becoming a popular option because of their affordability and ease of use. They usually are easy to reprogram, allowing workers on the assembly line to quickly retask the cobots. Additionally, cobots are designed with safety in mind, allowing humans and robots to work together harmoniously on the shop floor.
Another human-robot collaboration is the use of exoskeletons. These wearable robots assist human workers with lifting heavy truck tires and ease stress on their bodies when completing repetitive overhead assembly tasks. This innovation is of particular importance due to the rising average age of production workers.
Based on these examples, the authors suggest that automotive manufacturing is already close to the level of automation predicted for the factories of the future. The task ahead is to determine how automation and humans can work harmoniously to improve operations and reduce costs.
Aiming for operational excellence
The factories of the future will also need supply chain professionals who can help identify and plan for such operational improvements. Companies will need to continue focusing on operations management, which the APICS Dictionary defines as, “The planning, scheduling, and control of the activities that transform inputs into finished goods and services.”
On a larger scale, companies also need to consider their overall supply chain operations to boost efficiency. APICS recently released its Supply Chain Operations Reference (SCOR) model 12.0 to help companies measure, improve and communicate their supply chain business performance. SCOR is the world’s leading supply chain framework and can be used to improve business agility, accelerate business process effectiveness and improve overall operational performance. The latest version offers users access to current best practices, new cost and agility metric hierarchies for more accurate benchmarking, process workflows generated by the SCOR BPM Accelerator, and more. visit the SCOR 12.0 framework to learn more.