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Lot Size of One

Posted on July 13th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


By BMW Werk Leipzi [CC BY-SA 2.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

“Industry 4.0” offers significant promise, but is a lot size of one really feasible?

The fourth industrial revolution – what is commonly being discussed as “Industry 4.0” – continues the evolution of manufacturing processes and technologies to now leverage cyber-physical systems. Using up-and-coming innovations including big data, Internet of things, cloud computing, industrial sensors, and the requisite bleeding edge software, Industry 4.0 boasts manufacturing efficiencies like never before realized through automation, modularization, additive manufacturing, smart factories , and self aware supply chains.

As an engineer, manufacturer, and technologist, I can easily see how these new technologies can help address historic constraints in the manufacturing process. Machines and tools are subject to wear and tolerance build up, materials and logistics are susceptible to supply chain issues, and workers – always a variable in the assembly line – can become ill, take vacations, become injured or have personal problems all which affect their performance. So when Bosch made the claim of “no two cars will ever be alike again” in a promotional video entitled Future production with Industry 4.0 on YouTube, I was immediately curious of whether this would be a good idea even if it were physically possible. As my father used to say, “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.”

For the sake of argument – and putting fancy computer generated graphics aside – I agree with the premise of the video that personalization is a growing demand of consumers. Companies that can more quickly react to changes and demand of target markets will have a significant advantage. However, not all product lines lend themselves to additive manufacturing or tool-less manufacturing. Large, heavily engineered and expensive products such as automobiles require efficiencies of materials and manufacture to make them cost effective and profitable. While sensors, data gathering and IoT connectivity can certainly reduce the variability and downtime in an auto assembly line, can it really enable me to produce structural components cost effectively? Imagine the complexity and cost of allowing consumers to choose the amount of head room in their new car. This not only impacts the form fit and function of the design, but also the supply of raw material required and the complex manufacturing processes to produce a vehicle of integrity.

The concept of continuous improvement is a cornerstone of manufacturing, so the evolution of Industry 4.0 is certainly logical. There are still significant challenges for manufacturers to solve and I believe the Deloitte video above does a good job of positioning the opportunity. Whether the challenge is elimination of unplanned downtime, matching material supply to demand, the effectiveness of labor and specialized skills, supply chain dynamics, responding to market demands, or quickly identifying and capitalizing on new sources of revenue, the fourth industrial revolution will be propelled by those who not only see the new opportunity but can do so in a way offering benefit to both consumers and their companies.

What are your thoughts on “Industry 4.0”? How is your company taking advantage of IoT, cloud computing, or the other technologies in this revolution? Tell us about your quest for unconventional knowledge and what it could mean for the future of your products or companies. Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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