Innovations for Frugal Manufacturing
Published by : Industrial Automation
PV Sivaram presents a perspective on the contradictions in concepts like Frugal Innovations and Scalable Automation and how to get the best out of them.
The concept of frugal innovation is inevitably linked to low cost manufacturing. But these are two independent concepts, and one does not necessarily lead to the other. Frugality is a strategy to do the best with as less resources as feasible. But then, the plant or factory has to achieve set goals, and realise the set vision. The plant does not exist in isolation, it has to deliver to a competitive market. The product features are, as always, dictated by the King – the customer!
Frugal Products and Affordability
Let us look then at frugality in specifications. It is true that most products are designed to meet multiple segments of buyers, each having somewhat different need or purpose to buy. Many a customer is vexed that he is being forced to buy a product with many features that she does not need, and at the same time making operation more complex and error prone. It can also be argued that making the product dedicated for a single use can make it more economical.
But, wait a minute! Is it true? If we make a product ideally suited for one segment of buyers, then per say, the volume of such product becomes quite low. In which case, the cost of manufacture and distribution of low volumes might actually increase! Looking beyond manufacture, the cost of marketing, stocking and retailing of several models with different features is also an additional cost!
Exactly at this point, the concepts of digitalisation and Industry 4.0 make their value felt. These technologies provide the means to ‘mass customisation’. In other words, it is possible to manufacture at a batch size one, at a competitive cost. Does this argument then, apply for all products? Customer preference typically puts lower price first, and other wishes can come later. But some features of safety and security are not optional, and cannot be ‘designed-out’ to meet desired price level.
We can examine the aspect of over-engineering – a term used with a slight derision. This means adding heightened specifications to features which are actually not essential to the user. But many a time, it is the extended specs that give the feel of sophistication. That every feature is built with considerable thought, and thereby provides a customer delight by catering to needs which he has not thought about, gives a respect for the model. This is typically felt when the product is aged and experienced wear-and-tear. Customer really appreciates repairability built in, which is not an expressed need at time of purchase. So, at the end of the discussion, we can say that not only the price paid upfront is a criterion, rather we should look at costs incurred throughout the lifecycle of the product.
Scale of production to match demand
Scaling up the business is the dream of every entrepreneur. Everyone surely wants their sales volume to grow by leaps and bounds. Equally essential however, is to protect the margins. No business can sacrifice profits over a period of time to increase market share. How to manage these two factors simultaneously? Once again, it is technology which helps. By predicting the demand trend, investments can be better focussed and deployed.
But what of the converse? If demand suddenly drops, how is that situation to be handled? Here too, technology has its tools. By identifying which of the machine aggregates provide most efficient production, knowledgeable decisions can be made for production planning. Optimal logistics can be worked out for supply chain as well as for the distribution network. The important aspect is, by having a visibility of entire supply chain, it is possible to provide more accurate demand forecast for each component, and so each vendor can optimise production both volume and delivery schedule. This could be the biggest benefit of using digitalisation.
We move from products to factories where the products are made. There is in recent times a general rush to fully automate factories. In the context of frugal setup for factories, one could think of a layout where some machines are automated and some operations are manual. This definitely saves cost than to have a fully automated factory. But many precautions are to be observed as to which processes are going to be automated and which are manual or semi- automatic. One criterion which jumps up is balancing the line speed. Line speed is determined by the slowest process in the sequence. The choice of automation faces a dilemma – some processes are easy to automate, but some are difficult to handle manually with desired speed and accuracy. Temptation would be to go for standard machines obtained over-the-counter and handle specialist tasks for manual handling. However, this may result in slowing down the entire plant output. Where process is subject to stringent regulatory compliance, it may be advantageous to automate the process with self-documentation in paperless form.
A closely related topic is scalable automation. Today we know that all automation has much functionality achieved through software. Software development is expensive; especially when we look at long term maintenance of software, the cost increases further. At the same time, software is bound up with the hardware platform for which it is designed. The hardware and the system software define the environment for the application software. This application software has embedded into it a lot of domain knowledge and also proprietary process knowhow. For example, if there is a software to run a machine to make PET bottles, the amount of knowledge from the company which gets fed into the software is very large, it might be difficult to put a monetary value on it.
Then, over a period of time, the hardware platform becomes obsolete, because the components such as CPU are phased out by technology evolution. It is easy enough to buy a new piece of hardware to replace the old hardware. But what of compatibility of the old application to the new hardware or system software? There are special techniques in design of system architecture, which take care of generational compatibility. What is the benefit of this, because such compatibility too has a price? Life period of plant and machines in the order of decades, whereas technological obsolescence cycles of controllers are typically just over a decade. This additional price paid for scalable automation extends life of the machine beyond the life of a controller.
Robotic Process Automation
The two arms of automation are well known to be great savers of effort, cost and time: Office, which has been around ever since PCs are freely available, used to empower administration and planning teams; and Process and Factory Automation, which helps to manufacture and deliver products in high volume, with good quality and desired price level. There is a third aspect in the business – customer interaction. A good amount of effort and cost goes into this process, and speed and accuracy of response is of great value. Therefore, it is a good candidate for automation. This area is called RPA – Robotic Process Automation.
The robots mentioned here are not mechanical constructs, but rather software tools. For ease of distinguishing, they can be called ‘bots’. These bots can be plugged into the communication interface. They can work on queries or commands, and trigger actions within the system to fetch answers, exactly the way a human would do. To give a simple example, if a customer calls to find out the rescheduled delivery date of his equipment, instead of a human at the other end, a bot can immediately look into system and respond with the delivery date. Benefit here is obvious, the bot is available 24x365. Bots need not be expensive since no extra hardware systems are needed; they just plug in at the interface point. A manual over- ride is easy to accomplish. Gaining acceptance need not be a big problem, since smart phones and other systems already have such bots.
Shape of things to come
Going forward, process efficiency is already achieved by a combination of above ideas. The great significance of these ideas is in the possibilities by combining the ideas. They all provide a scope to enhance the intelligence and cognitivity of the systems. The technology called Artificial Intelligence allows systems to develop an awareness of context and environment. We will soon find AI entering to various gadgets of daily use, and thereafter into production machines as well.
A greater excitement will come about when the AI reaches a critical mass. Then the AI systems can autonomously exchange data, and start learning from each other. We can dream of a factory with all machine data being available with Augmented Reality. That means a Gemba (a walk on shop floor) will not only yield a visual impression, simultaneously also the vital parameters of production, maintenance alerts and so on. It may be possible to walk through a factory yet to be built – complete with real-to-life placement of machines, product flow, energy data, vibration and noise measurement and so on.
PV Sivaram was the Managing Director of B&R Industrial Automation and had founded and built the organisation in India since 1996. He is also the Past President of Automation India Association (AIA), and a Mentor at C4i4, Pune which is a part of Samarth Udyog Initiative by Department of Heavy Industries. Sivaram began his career in Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) where he has worked on Reactor Controls. He later shifted to the electrical engineering major Siemens before joining B&R Industrial Automation.
Subsequently he founded the Indian Subsidiary of B&R Industrial Automation – now part of ABB. He grew the company over twenty years making it one of prominent Machine and Factory Automation companies in India. Sivaram has worked in various fields like Power Transmission and Distribution, Communications, and Power Plant Automation. At B&R he has led projects on Machine and Factory Automation in all verticals like Plastic, Pharma, Textiles, etc. He has considerable experience in Distributed Systems, SCADA, DCS, and microcontroller applications. He has worked on software for redundancy systems and managed large projects both in public sector and private fields. He has nearly forty five years of work experience. After retirement from B&R he is actively engaged with C4i4 primarily as a Mentor and as an evangelist for Digitalisation. Sivaram believes strongly that digitisation and adoption of the technology and practices of Industry 4.0 are essential for MSMEs of India. He works to bring these concepts clearer to the people for whom it is more important.