Reconfigurable Manufacturing Systems
Manufacturing organizations need to be able to respond both fully and quickly to the demands of today's rapidly changing marketplace. To enable their production facilities to do this, an increasing number of manufacturing organizations are investing in technology for reconfigurable manufacturing systems. These systems are designed from the outset so that their structure, hardware, and software components can be rapidly changed to adjust production capacity in response to changing market needs. Reconfigurable manufacturing systems have five key characteristics: Modularity, integrability, convertibility, diagnosability, and customization. Research into practical ways to approach the designing of reconfigurable manufacturing systems is underway in many industrialized nations. These approaches include the analytical hierarchical process and the virtual production system approach.
The term "globalization" brings with it thoughts of wider marketplaces and greater opportunities. However, on the heels of such thoughts is the concomitant realization of greater competition. This is compounded by the fact that we live in an age where technology affects virtually every aspect of our lives both at home and at the workplace. However, this technology is not static: Technological advances continue to proliferate, and businesses must stay abreast -- or even ahead -- of the needs of the marketplace in order to not only offer the goods and services that customers want, but also to be able to provide these goods and services at all. In short, technology not only offers opportunities to businesses but challenges as well.
Changing Demands for Manufacturers
One of the places where this fact is readily seen is in manufacturing companies. Long gone are the days of Henry Ford when one could have a car in any color "as long as it is black." Contemporary customers want options and alternatives. If one company is unwilling or unable to offer it, its competitors typically are. In some cases, this means that an organization needs to expand its product line or offer new services. In other cases, however, this means that an organization needs to be flexible so that it can meet the demands of a changing marketplace and stay ahead of the competition. For an organization that primarily deals in services, this can be a challenging enough situation requiring the reengineering of business processes or changing of a marketing approach. However, in manufacturing organizations where there is a tangible product, this often means not only that the product needs to be changed, but that the equipment used to manufacture it must be changed as well. As the twenty-first century progresses, manufacturing organizations will face increasing challenges including the high frequency introduction of new products and innovations, new product demand and mix, new parts for exiting products, new government regulations, and new process technology. To maintain their competitiveness in this rapidly changing environment, manufacturing organizations will need to be able to respond both fully and quickly to the demands of any of these variables.
There are a number of generic paradigms for traditional and conventional manufacturing systems.
- The dedicated manufacturing system is designed for a fixed process technology in stable market conditions. This manufacturing approach allows the company to manufacture a single product.
- The flexible manufacturing and cellular manufacturing systems are designed to produce limited product types under predictable market conditions and using an adaptable process.
Manufacturing systems are also often categorized broadly into four major classifications: job shops, mass and continuous production facilities, batch production, and traditional cellular manufacturing. Virtual manufacturing (a more recent approach) combines the features of jobs shops and traditional cellular manufacturing. A comparison of some of the aspects of traditional, conventional, and advanced manufacturing systems is shown in Table 1.
Manufacturing Systems Aspect Traditional Manufacturing Systems (e.g., dedicated systems) Conventional Manufacturing Systems (e.g., cellular and flexible systems) Advanced Manufacturing Systems (e.g., reconfigurable systems) Process technology over time Fixed Needs to be adaptable to market Should be responsive to market Market Stable Predictable Uncertain Manufacturing policy Pushing Pulling Customizing The gap level between manufacturing systems and demand variations (present/future) high/very high Medium/high Low/very low (expected)
Reconfigurable Manufacturing Systems
Because of the changing demands of the marketplace, an increasing number of manufacturing organizations are investing in technology for reconfigurable manufacturing systems that are designed from the outset so that their structure, hardware, and software components can be rapidly changed to adjust production capacity in response to new market circumstances or alter their functionality to produce a new part of the same part family. Using this philosophy, manufacturing systems will be able to provide organizations with exactly the functionality and capacity needed, exactly when it is needed in response to such rapidly evolving circumstances as changing product demand, the need to produce a new product on an existing system, or the need to integrate new process technology into an existing system.
Components that might be changed in a reconfigurable manufacturing system include individual machines, conveyors within a system or mechanisms in individual machines, new sensors, or new controller algorithms. An example of a generic reconfigurable manufacturing system is shown in Figure 1. In this example, the initial installation of the system (Figure 1a) includes only the capacity and functionality required for a specific part family. The same system can later be upgraded to meet changing requirements such as production of a new product on the same reconfigurable manufacturing system. As shown in Figure 1b, the system can be upgraded to include a second spindle unit and to include an autonomous vehicle or other requirements. The upgraded system also includes additional machines to accommodate increased production capacity. The factory controller has also been reconfigured to handle the additional equipment.
To be useful, reconfigurable manufacturing systems need to be open ended so that they can be improved or upgraded rather than replaced. This approach to system design enables reconfigurable systems to be flexible both for producing a variety of products and for changing the system itself. One of the keys to building this kind of flexibility into the system is to do so from the onset using a modular design for both the hardware and the software that allows the system to be quickly and reliably rearranged to meet changing requirements.
The Research Center for Reconfigurable Machining Systems
One of the leaders in research on reconfigurable manufacturing systems has been the Engineering Research Center for Reconfigurable Machining Systems at the University of Michigan. The center has worked on the development of a type of evolving factory that is designed using a system that allows for...
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