The assembly line, reassembled

At a time when uncertainty hangs over the UK economic landscape, manufacturers are quietly remaking their factory operations, says David Stain, Europe, Middle East and Africa marketing manager for manufacturing at Zebra Technologies


Beyond the nature of the UK’s future trading relationship with the European Union, supply chain challenges and an on-demand economy, the single biggest unknown for manufacturers is the effect of consumer choice on product differentiation: “What will they want from us next?”

It has been quite some time since the first mass-market Model T Ford drove off the production line (available “in any colour so long as it’s black”). Then, the knowledge and skills needed in the factory were limited to around eight key areas of product choice. Today, manufacturers cater to a miscellany of consumer tastes in which choice has become the prerequisite to purchase.

Personalisation, specification and design have inflated operational and supply chain complexity, raised significant quality issues on the factory floor and, ultimately, affected manufacturers’ bottom lines.

In our latest research manufacturers told us they are planning to meet the challenges of the next five years by increasing investment in a host of new technologies to bring goods faster to market, address burgeoning complexity and improve connected visibility throughout their facilities. This last area is possibly the most significant because it has the greatest potential to alter plant floor operations and mitigate against complications brought about by consumer choice.

The solution lies in the use of technology to implement best practice across all areas of the operation, to control cost and quality issues. Augmented and virtual reality technology, and factory robotics are often considered key to this efficiency. However, the real first step is in more familiar territory, RFID (radio-frequency identification) and barcode scanning.

Once a truly effective field of data capture and active communication is enabled across operations, all components, stations, workers and equipment can be automatically identified and tracked as they move through the various gates and stages of production.

The rich and scalable level of visibility made available by this technology opens up possibilities for maintaining or improving output with smaller lot sizes. Items can be tracked as they arrive at assembly points and operators can be linked to devices and control servers.

Using visibility and communications tools to help facilitate human and machine interaction is also a crucial element in bridging the manufacturing skills gap. Some of our automotive clients tell us it takes two weeks to teach one of their workers how to undertake work cell assembly activity in the classroom. This old-fashioned method of learning to assemble and check three times over can now be replicated on the factory floor and in half the time. Instead of rote instruction from a line manager, an audio-visual instruction can teach workers while the chassis moves along the assembly line, thereby digitalising the standard operating procedure

The future of manufacturing will emerge from technological innovations with visibility at its core

Over the next five years, the requirement of workforce skills will transfer into new areas of production, allowing workers to be more proactive on the line. Toolmakers are learning programming languages to operate CNC (computer numerical control) machines and robotic equipment, and maintenance teams are digitally enabled by mobile or wearable devices so they can look up the schematics of equipment on-site.

It’s this digital “look-up” and availability of visual interfaces that reverse many of the problems associated with silo-based working. Over the next five years, less time will be spent reading handwritten notes, spreadsheets and log books to find instructions and servicing records. Across the line, quality issues will be captured before they leave the factory and workers will be less reliant on their line managers. All necessary information will become accessible at the right moment and for the right task.

As an industry, manufacturing is in the unique position of being caught between the familiar practices of the past and the potential of the future. As companies face the demands of an uncertain future, the future of manufacturing will emerge from technological innovations with visibility at its core, providing a view across operations so manufacturers can respond to changes in demand. And this starts by embracing technology to build a digital visualisation of your operations