As greater demand creates pressure to produce products quickly, Flex’s Hooi Tan explains how advanced manufacturing technology helps shorten time to market.
Transforming an idea into a product that helps improve the world is complicated. Doing it at scale? Even harder. From ideation to prototyping, engineering, assembly, reverse logistics, and everything in between, mass manufacturing is complex.
However, the complexity doesn’t keep demand at bay. According to the most recent United States Census Bureau data, new orders for manufactured goods through July 2021 increased again, spiking fourteen of the prior fifteen months and accounting for nearly half a trillion dollars. Similar trends span the globe, with consumer spending and interest in durable goods increasing in many countries, especially with the holidays fast approaching. It’s not just consumer demand, though. The past 18 months showed how quickly health systems could request highly regulated medical devices like ventilators and oxygenizers.
To keep up with the increasing demand, manufacturers are working harder than ever, accelerating time to market with quicker ramps, less waste, and greater efficiency. And this task becomes even more challenging for certain product categories.
While the product lifecycle for consumer goods is already short, they rapidly change year to year and sometimes even month to month. While highly regulated industries, such as medical and automotive, move slower, they are also in high demand. To address these challenges, organizations need to invest in Industry 4.0 technologies that help create smart, efficient, and sustainable factories.
As someone who manages operations for one of the world’s largest manufacturers and oversees more than 150,000 team members who help produce approximately 50,000–60,000 different products across more than 100 sites, I can attest that advanced manufacturing technology has helped us drive greater efficiency and sustainability while lowering costs during every step of the product journey. Not only do these innovations help us meet growing demand, they enable us to make data-driven decisions, improve safety on the factory floor, and reduce repetitive manual work.
Ways advanced manufacturing technology can support every facet of the product lifecycle:
Innovate and ideate
Turning a vision into a viable product requires a mix of art and science. Before moving forward, organizations need to consider design plans, production strategy, building materials, and more.
Simulation and modeling technology are two innovations that can help check for product viability and potential pitfalls during these early stages. By modeling and simulating what the product will look like in a virtual realm, organizations can save time and money instead of building it and testing it in the real world. This type of innovation can also help identify high-risk components or parts before a product even exists.
Design and develop
The next step is to shorten the time to market with a working prototype. This step requires the right mix of know-how, advanced software, and production capabilities.
Additive manufacturing solutions have become incredibly important in this leg. Instead of leveraging legacy production solutions, which often require the removal of materials through milling, carving, or other means, additive manufacturing enables engineers to quickly create a prototype leveraging CAD software or 3D object scanners. Here, 3D printing and rapid prototyping serve as an incredibly cost-effective and fast way to deliver a product in its first tangible form. In addition, the use of additive enables teams to quickly test the design before it goes into mass production, where potential errors can be detrimental.
Build and produce
Once a product is ready for primetime, the factory must be too. Ensuring a factory is leveraging the latest automation and digitization solutions can reap massive benefits in the long run.
Smart automation and robotics can help streamline repetitive assembly tasks, reduce variability and possibility for error while increasing safety, and freeing up human workers for more valuable work. These machines can also exchange information with one another using machine-to-machine (M2M) communications to improve coordination, thereby boosting performance, lowering downtime, and raising productivity while reducing costs.
Deliver and support
With production running at full steam, organizations come to the final leg of the product journey, where the focus shifts to fulfillment, distribution, logistics, and aftermarket support. At this stage, keeping up with constantly changing dynamics, shortages, and repairs can be one of the more complex steps.
Real-time visibility into transport networks, orders, and returns becomes paramount at this stage. Therefore, a strong digitization plan is fundamental here. Leading manufacturers implement distributed digital technologies on factory floors globally to act as a 24/7 decision-making system. These systems can integrate feeds from various sources, including factory machines, supply chain feeds, and even global news media, turning insights into actions to navigate a crisis.
While this overview provides a high-level snapshot of what it takes to create a product at scale, anyone who has ever worked in a factory knows it’s not that simple. No two ramps are ever the same, and challenges can pop up on any line at any time. Industry 4.0 technologies represent a much-needed step forward that helps alleviate costly mistakes that can delay production. However, the real importance will always be the knowledge of the workers and managers on the factory floor. Technologies can free up time, increase safety, and improve decision making. Still, it’s the real-time human-level problem solving that drives the most value and ensures that deadlines are met, products are produced, and contracts are fulfilled.
In future blogs, I’ll write about the innovations and people that drive manufacturing forward.