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SME Speaks: Automation Comes Full Circle, Brings Flexibility Back








By Gene Nelson
Society of Manufacturing Engineers


For years, North American manufacturing has experienced overcapacity and intense competition. As the market changes, manufacturers have had to respond in new ways to maintain their market share. Key to our success is our ability to provide customers with a range of quality products at competitive prices. Achieving the right level of flexibility at the right price while achieving consistently high quality has always required a balancing act, but we now have more of the means to meet all three goals: new, more robust control systems for tooling, and leading-edge equipment with greater flexibility.

The most flexible systems were probably the manual processes used before the introduction of computers and automation. While it was possible to easily and frequently change models and adjust production capacity with modest investment, manual systems were costly and could not achieve the high level of quality seen in today's products. As automation was introduced, the reliability and repeatability in manufacturing improved dramatically.

Unfortunately, automation drove up investment cost. And, it actually reduced flexibility; product changes could only be made with major investments in retooling, and many manufacturers moved toward standard product platforms to avoid that cost. So while we achieved better quality, we sacrificed on initial investment cost, flexibility, and lead time. Not to mention that consumers often became bored with products that reflected little variation.

As global competition has heated up, manufacturers are seeing opportunities to use new leading-edge flexible automation technologies and processes to produce more varied products at controlled costs. Automation technology continues to improve manufacturers' accuracy and repeatability. To make the system work, it takes a coordinated product-and-process compatibility strategy.

Like many automotive companies, my former employer, Ford Motor Company, is expanding the flexibility in its manufacturing facilities. According to Vice President of North American Vehicle Operations, Gary DeMars, Ford already has flexible automation in eight of its 19 assembly plants, with a goal to have flexible automation in 75% of its assembly and power train plants by 2010. As a result of flexible automation, Ford is able to produce multiple products on the same line with substantially less cost and reduced lead time.

Flexible automation is not the single solution to the challenges faced by North American manufacturers today, but it is one thing they can introduce quickly, and they are wisely doing so.

This is one of the reasons why SME's Technical Communities are so valuable to tens of thousands of manufacturing professionals. SME's seven communities, including its Automated Manufacturing & Assembly Community, help manufacturers discuss, share, and increase their knowledge related to the latest advances in manufacturing and technical solutions across the manufacturing enterprise.

Finding the right balance between flexibility and cost, and between quality and turnaround time: these will always remain challenges for manufacturers. SME offers a forum for manufacturing professionals to gather all the best information available today about the possible solutions, so that they can make the most informed decisions in our intensely competitive environment. We don't know exactly what the future will bring in further opportunities for automation, or for improvements in all areas within the manufacturing enterprise. But what we can count on is the fact that there will be a continuous flow of new ideas and innovations. And the smartest thing we can do is continue to share them for the collective benefit of our industries.



Energy-Efficient Manufacturing Management      

Changes in energy management systems and techniques can help companies lower costs, increase reliability and, in many areas, benefit from significant tax advantages. For these reasons and more, it is imperative that manufacturing engineers and their organizations can recognize, analyze, and respond to the complexities of energy management in a dynamic and changing business environment.

A recent survey of East Coast manufacturers conducted by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) indicates that, while most manufacturers had some energy management systems in place, only 25% regularly measure and respond to their energy usage. About two-thirds of respondents identified rising energy costs as a concern, but nearly 40% have not adopted any energy-management techniques.

The good news is that more than half of manufacturers are interested in learning more about energy-management techniques and systems. Of the manufacturers who have already implemented energy-management techniques designed to lower costs and/or increase the reliability of their energy supply, 27% had peak demand agreements with utilities, 19% used energy-management software or in-process measurement systems, and 8% had power-quality management systems in place.

According to Don Foster, of the Lawrence Berkley National Lab and a member of SME's Alternative Energy Advisory Committee, good energy-management strategies help companies develop and implement systems that reduce energy usage, decrease costs, and support environmental policies. Foster recommends that manufacturers work to understand their current and past energy use in order to identify opportunities to improve energy performance and gain financial benefits.

"Significant reductions in energy use are possible if the right research is completed first," said Foster. He recommends those seeking to improve energy management make completing a systematic analysis of energy use their first priority.

"First, you will identify your company's major energy uses and their costs, carefully analyzing all energy bills and allocating the expenses to specific processes, operating divisions, product lines, etc.. Then you can identify high and poor-performing areas, and come up with a plan," said Foster. "If you compare annual energy use, you'll be able to benchmark your performance against your own historical data and see how far you have improved."

In order to help manufacturers learn to take advantage of potential energy savings, SME members have hosted a variety of forums and developed educational resources focused on efficient energy usage. One of the most recent events was a "Manufacturing 'Green' Powertrain: Challenges & Opportunities for Automotive Supply Base," workshop held at the Midwest Advanced Productivity Exposition, September 13 - 15, in Novi, Mich. The workshop was funded, in part, by a grant from the State of Michigan.

The US Department of Energy estimates that industry--responsible for more than one-third of the nation's energy consumption--can achieve practical energy reductions of about 20%, with 30% of those savings achieved through changes in procedures and management only, rather than through capital investment. That's savings that North American manufacturers literally can't afford to pass by!


This article was first published in the September 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 


Published Date : 9/1/2005

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