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The Digital Factory Dilemma

Leveling the path to automated manufacturing
  • Philip E. Quigley
May/June 2016

A few weeks ago, one of my students gave me a copy of an article from The Guardian titled “Mercedes-Benz Swaps Robots for People on Its Assembly Lines.” The story makes the point that the automotive manufacturer has a huge number of options on its cars, including heated or cooled cup holders and four different types of tire-valve caps. What Mercedes-Benz leaders discovered is that current-generation robots cannot handle such an extensive number of choices. As consumers request higher and higher levels of customization, automotive companies are going to have to figure out how to deliver while producing thousands of unique cars each day.

What can we do?

Interestingly, a potential solution to this challenge comes from three Wall Street Journal articles I recently explored with my students. The first, “Robots Work Their Way into Small Factories,” is about new, tinier robots, which can cost as little as $15,000–$50,000. These robots offer manufacturers many more implementation options on assembly lines and in fabrication departments, and some are being used as assistants to human workers. In such situations, the robots oil and clean parts, move items from one area to another, and save considerable time. Because they are a fairly recent technology, we don’t yet know how viable they will be in years to come. But I bet we are going to be pleasantly surprised.

The other two stories are about Germany’s efforts to keep its manufacturing industry competitive. Both articles focus heavily on technology, including robots. The first, “Behind Germany’s Success Story in Manufacturing,” discusses Fraunhofer Society. This is a network of government and private research groups that has had considerable success helping small-to-medium German companies master new technologies in order to keep the nation on the cutting edge.

The second story, “Germany Bets on ‘Smart Factories’ to Keep Its Manufacturing Edge,” describes how German research institutes, universities, government, and private companies are designing new, fully automated, internet-based smart factories. Again, the idea is to be able to build high-tech products in greatly automated plants in order to enable the kind of customization today’s consumers demand.

Of course, the essential question here is if supply chain and operations managers worldwide can learn from the Germans and make all of our plants more viable now and into the future. The first step will require getting serious about rebuilding our manufacturing bases. We must be willing to innovate, think creatively, and employ all the great skills we possess. Collaboration with suppliers and solution providers will be equally crucial. Likewise, this effort demands strong partnerships with higher education and researchers. Maximizing technologies such as tablets and smartphones also will be another key part of this undertaking.

Perhaps most importantly, supply chain and operations managers must hold absolute conviction in the power of ingenuity and the value of working intelligently, working vigorously, and working together.

Philip E. Quigley, CFPIM, PMP, is senior project manager at Ingram Micro and an adjunct professor in the department of management at California State University, Fullerton. He may be contacted at pquigley@fullerton.edu.

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