Automation Insights

One step ahead of the competition: Transformable factories as an opportunity for the automation industry

It is increasingly difficult for manufacturing companies to react flexibly to changes in the volatile market environment and to remain capable of acting. However, technical solutions can provide them with fundamental support in this regard. The automation industry should therefore examine its product portfolio for transformation-enabling properties in order to lead the market at an early stage.

"Nothing is as constant as change" - this was stated by the philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus as early as around 500 BC. Today, this is more true than ever. Increasing competitive and cost pressures, shorter product life cycles, and high innovation dynamics make it essential for companies to be adaptable. Transformability combines flexibility and responsiveness, and means being able to implement organizational, technical, and logistical adjustments in a short time and with low investment, if necessary.

More transformability through automation

The status quo in many companies suggests that transformability and automation tend not to be directly related.  In scientific research, too, the focus is still primarily on developing methodological approaches to increasing transformability - and less on technical solutions. However, we are convinced that automation technology can make an important contribution to increasing the transformability of factories in practice. The following two fictitious but practical use cases illustrate this:

Example 1
Driven by changing customer requirements, a manufacturer has developed a new, innovative product generation that significantly changes the production process. A layout change is therefore unavoidable. Previously, a rail-mounted transport system was used to supply materials; due to a layout change, the floor had to be routed out.
However, the company owners and the COO focused on transformability and flexibility at an early stage. Therefore, they have already converted the material supply system to AGVs (automated guided vehicles). These independently make a 3D image of the new hall layout and thus find alternative routes in the event of new obstacles. The company has also replaced its existing manufacturing robots with new, mobile robotic units that can be moved around within the factory at any time.

Example 2
Products with a high degree of individualization push the conventional factory system of an industrial company to its performance limits. At the same time, they make the possibilities of transformable factories clear to management. In order to produce at a similar speed and profitability to conventional series, the company decides to establish a cross-functional organization and agile way of working among its skilled workers. Innovative and automated support, such as additive manufacturing and digital product models, shortens design and processing times and allows a rapid response to customer requirements. Transformable production systems are decisive here.

This leads us to the following strategic hypothesis:

Automation solutions and products contribute greatly to enabling a manufacturing environment to change. They help manufacturing companies to respond to new developments quickly, flexibly, and with lower investment.

Strategic hypothesis

Basically, five characteristics of a production system can be defined as so-called change enablers: Universality, scalability, mobility, modularity, and compatibility. We have specified the change enablers for the automation industry, deriving the following implications:

  • Universality according to requirements: Whether via automatic system adjustment, in which, for example, a robot gripping system is adapted to a specific component in real time, or in the development of a temperature-resistant machine that can be used anywhere required: Universality can be increased in several ways. However, this is accompanied by higher investment costs and longer product development times. Consequently, those responsible must take care to ensure a pragmatic balance between universality and the demand for the greatest possible cost-effectiveness.
  • Individualized and optimized (re-)setup: Automation engineers can offer their customers added value by reducing setup times and frequency. In the course of this, it is important to shorten the integration engineering, commissioning, and ramp-up times of plants. Low-code or no-code tools can also support this, as they allow even employees without programming knowledge to make adjustments without any problems.
  • Unclocked marketplace production and relocatable machines: Clocked flow production in particular can find volatility difficult to manage. Converting the production type to the marketplace principle can, where appropriate, increase transformability. Communication technologies and driverless transport systems are used here to flexibly transport the products to the corresponding workstations. In addition, omnidirectional moving robots and robotic platforms, as well as easily relocatable machines, can increase transformability.
  • Plug & Produce: Ideally, the arm of a modular industrial robot can, if necessary, be easily replaced by a new one that meets the requirements of the production process. Plug & Produce means: Connect a module without time-consuming reprogramming and use the functionality immediately. It should be noted that not only internal, but also external cross-manufacturer compatibility should be ensured.
  • Implementation and enforcement of standards: It is becoming increasingly important for manufacturers to coordinate with each other and introduce appropriate industry standards in order to proactively counteract national or regional standards. In particular, it is relevant that they standardize interfaces, which can also be provided as a functional unit via plug & produce. In addition, the digital transparency of planning documents and machine data as well as open automation technology continue to gain in importance.

In order to understand for which customers in the automation industry transformability, change enablers and their implications are particularly relevant, they can be divided into three customer segments in a highly simplified manner: Customers with workshop, center or flow production.

The following aspects should be considered in this regard

  • First, in order to cope with volatility, the factors of process repetition and variant diversity should lead to the choice of the appropriate production system.
  • Secondly, depending on the production system, customers have varying degrees of demand for change-enabling products from the automation industry.

Customers with workshop production - in extreme cases, characterized by customized made-to-order production - are basically flexible with regard to their resources. Center production or the marketplace principle can be used for fluctuating quantities and a high number of variants. In this context, excellent process quality is also necessary in order to master the complexity. Flow production focuses on a small number of standardized products with very high volumes, whose production processes can be optimized down to the smallest detail.

What actions should automation engineers derive from the "transformable factories" trend?

  • Exploit and expand sales opportunities for existing products: Expanding existing and new change-enabling features of the product portfolio provides additional selling points for automation companies and enables them to benefit more from the growing demand for flexible production. Sales and marketing must specifically address these characteristics in order to increase sales.
  • Integration into product development: The topics of transformability and modern automation technology must be considered in an integrated manner. Change enablers and their implications can serve as a starting point in new product development.
  • Adjustment of own production: The company's own production should also be checked for transformability. This is especially true for future new planning. The real challenge, however, is to redesign existing structures and modernize existing facilities and equipment.

The topic of transformability will accompany automation technology across two dimensions in the long term: As an optimizer based on a company's products and as a producer in its own factories. The former in particular offers enormous opportunities to increase sales, open up new business segments, and stay one step ahead of the competition. Because one thing is certain in this context: Nothing remains, everything changes.

Kittelberger, D. / Heister, T. / Erdödy. S.