H Obstacle

Tackling three common manufacturing obstacles to achieve scalable production

Nov. 21, 2022

By Stevan Dobrasevic, product marketing director at Bright Machines 

Nearly every modern manufacturer is hyper-focused on establishing resilient, scalable production. Yet, revising, or supplanting decades-old, traditional processes is more difficult than anyone would prefer and can hinder progress within individual business operations and within the manufacturing industry at large.  

What exactly are these challenges? What slows down or stops manufacturers altogether in their efforts to create scalable production in today’s environment?  

Here are three common obstacles:  

1) There is more demand than availability of skilled manufacturing engineers 

2) Large differences within individual manufacturing sites exist  

3) Approval process for CapEx spending is not suited to modern, fast-changing markets  

There is a way forward. Shifting away from a traditional automation approach to one that’s based on an intelligent platform—where there is an architectural foundation that is flexible and future-proofed—is how manufacturers start to chip away at these obstacles. The sooner they embrace this approach, the sooner they achieve resilient, scalable production.  

Obstacle one: Not enough skilled manufacturing engineers 

Engineers are a vital part of any manufacturing operation, supporting everything from implementation and maintenance of equipment to ensuring the efficiency of processes and the quality of products. Today, however, manufacturing engineers are scarce, and this shortage is causing a massive bottleneck for manufacturers. 

A traditional automation system, for example, involves an assembly line that is integrated using various components such as robots, conveyors, and material feeders. All of these components have unique requirements and have to be programmed by engineers to form the assembly sequence—and there is a lot of complexity involved with getting each line right, including:   

  • Different systems: An automated assembly line typically consists of programmable logic controllers (PLCs), industrial computers and robot controllers. Each of these has a different workflow for programming. For example, PLCs can be programmed using ladder logic, Structured Text, or sequential function charts. Typically, any I/O that is connected to a specific robot is programmed along with that robot’s controller using a teach pendant. In addition to different programming workflows, the programming languages and tools can vary from vendor to vendor. This makes the controls-engineering task challenging and time-consuming.  
  • Different approaches: There are countless ways to attack traditional automation, with every engineer having their own preferred tools and workflows that make up their style. If an engineer hard-codes assembly instructions on a controller for one line, it can be difficult to reuse that software for another line later on unless that same engineer is available. And even if a manufacturer does have enough engineers for the work at hand, navigating different styles can be difficult and presents a challenge when trying to get experts to work together. Many manufacturing companies hire system integrators or external contractors to manage the complexity and do the work for them. However, these external organizations face the same skills-shortage problem, so it can be hard to secure them and can create risks in deployment schedules. 

An approach based on an intelligent platform, on the other hand, alleviates some of the pain of the skills shortage by offering:  

  • Standard architecture: Software-first platforms provide a standard architecture and a common workflow that eliminates the need to navigate different engineering styles. Everyone is working within the same system that uses the same programming approach and tools, immediately aligning all experts. 
  • Pre-integration work: There’s also a high level of pre-integration work completed upfront, meaning that software drivers have been created for the hardware components. This gives the platform a plug-and-play capability making the hardware components easier to integrate when creating an automated line.  
  • Greater efficiency: A standard architecture paired with pre-integration perks work together as a productivity multiplier. Controls engineers can work together more efficiently and support more lines.  

As the industry works through its skills-shortage gap over time, this approach gives engineers better tools that are easier (and more interesting) to work with in the near term.  

Obstacle two: Inefficiency caused by regional site differences 

Most manufacturers have multiple production sites, each of which likely has multiple lines in operation. Navigating this complexity once again looks different with traditional automation than it does with intelligent, software-first automation.  

Traditionally, manufacturers follow a decentralized model allowing individual sites to implement automation on their own. With this approach, individual sites will often engage with local system integrators to automate lines on a short-term, project-specific basis. This results in many one-off custom implementations which require various engineers to be on staff at each site to ensure everything runs smoothly. If an issue occurs and the maintenance engineer at a particular site is unavailable, it’s difficult for another engineer to come in and quickly understand the issue because the system is built differently. Not being able to share resources across sites is inefficient and frustrating, and it becomes next to impossible to scale up.   

An intelligent platform, however, helps bridge operations with:  

  • Common architecture: Utilizing the same hardware and software building blocks across all sites and lines provides a simplified environment for staff. It’s easier to train new employees. And in times of peak demand, staff can be shared among sites to help with load balancing. And because there is uniformity for the method and the type of data collected across lines, it’s easier to get visibility across the entire enterprise and benchmark for best practices.  
  • Spare parts inventory: Instead of buying spare parts for one specific line at one specific plant, manufacturers can have the same inventory and share resources across all plants, knowing everyone is trained on the same systems. This allows for faster servicing and makes scaling production (in either direction) much, much easier. And it provides ongoing cost savings, as parts can be purchased in larger quantities and with increased purchasing power. 

Obstacle three: Difficult to get CapEx approval  

Getting approval for purchases out of the CapEx budget typically requires several rounds of review. Expected costs and expected savings are estimated and the payback time is calculated.  

To perform this type of analysis for traditional automation, the capacity required for the automated line needs to be estimated. In today’s dynamic markets, it may not be possible to pin down the required capacity with reasonable certainty. Since traditional automation is rigid, once the capacity is set, it’s difficult to change it. This makes the investment riskier. If the actual volume turns out to be much lower than initially estimated, then the automated line will be underutilized and the ROI for the investment will not be realized. This makes companies hesitant to invest. 

Alternatively, a software-first platform enables manufacturers to: 

  • Run multiple products on the same line: The same automated line can support running dozens of product variants, as a software recipe for each variant provides the specific assembly instructions needed to assemble that variant. This makes product changeovers easy and quick for operators to perform and provides flexibility to change the build mix as demand changes. 
  • Reuse the automation equipment on new lines: When a line is no longer needed, the equipment can be reused. Using software to reconfigure the equipment, line changeovers can be accomplished quickly and help extend the useful life of the equipment. 

 Due to the inherent flexibility that a software-first platform offers, manufacturers can more confidently invest, even with higher levels of market uncertainly, knowing that they can course-correct as needed when conditions change. 

A clear path forward 

Manufacturers looking to establish resilient, scalable production in today’s dynamic markets will benefit from utilizing an intelligent platform. It provides a better tool to help alleviate the engineering bottleneck that is present in the industry. By enabling standardization across the enterprise, higher levels of efficiency are unlocked, which also help increase scale. And with the flexibility of an intelligent platform, manufacturers can more easily move through the CapEx approval process.