Manufacturers are making progress toward Industry 4.0, the next industrial revolution that will digitally transform production processes. One of the challenges with digitization is that no two operations are the same, making it impossible to find an off-the-shelf technology solution that will instantly connect, manage, and automate all manufacturing processes.
First, consider the broad categories that describe how manufacturing operations run:
Repetitive: These production lines operate 24/7/365, continuously producing the same items. These manufacturers often use parts or premade elements to create a final product. Assembly lines may stop occasionally for maintenance, but other than that, they’re always running. Some of the products produced in this manner include consumer electronics, appliances, and medical devices and supplies.
Discrete: These manufacturers produce a variety of products, both complete products like computers, vehicles, or household plastics and component parts like bolts and hinges on their assembly lines. This model needs to factor in changeovers and setup time between the manufacture of its diverse products.
Job Shop: Instead of a production line, these manufacturers produce batches or individual, made-to-order (MTO) or made-to-stock (MTS) products in a shop. Employees don’t work on lines but rather at workstations or in production areas.
Continuous Process Manufacturing: Like repetitive manufacturing, these processes run 24/7/365, but they begin with raw materials, such as gases, liquids, and powders and use a recipe or formula to combine and process them so they can’t be broken down into their original components. This manufacturing process is common in food and beverage, pharmaceutical, chemical, and plastics manufacturing.
Batch Process Manufacturing: This is process manufacturing but in batches. It requires cleaning and setup between batches.
Beyond how the operation runs, each manufacturer has a well-defined process to produce the highest-quality products most efficiently. Manufacturing methods that take place on production lines or in job shops include:
Machining: Sometimes called “subtractive manufacturing,” machining is milling, turning, drilling, or cutting a part or piece of materials in some other way to produce a finished product.
Casting: In this manufacturing process, liquid – often molten metal—is poured into a mold. When the liquid cools, it forms a solid part or product. Casting is often used for parts or products with an intricate shape that would be hard to produce consistently with other methods. Machining often follows casting to finish precision products.
Extrusion: Instead of filling a mold with metal, in extrusion, the metal is forced through a die to create objects of a consistent shape and size. Variations of the manufacturing process include cold extrusion in which metal is forced through a die near room temperature, hot extrusion performed at a high temperature, friction extrusion that produces heat from metal against metal, and micro extrusion that uses small dies as small as 1 millimeter.
Injection Molding: This process is similar to casting but uses melted plastics or polymers which cool to form a part or product. Injection molding is often used to make plastic products like bottle caps or toys. Blow molding, on the other hand, is used to make hollow plastic products like soda bottles or jars.
Forming: In this process, metal is manipulated by mechanical means – but unlike machining, the metal doesn’t lose its mass. An example is taking sheet metal and bending, curling, rolling or drawing it. Vacuum forming and thermoforming are similar methods in plastics manufacturing.
Joining: Examples of this category of manufacturing processes include welding, soldering, and adhesive bonding.
3D Printing: Sometimes called “additive manufacturing,” 3D printing makes three-dimensional parts by adding layers of material as directed by a digital file.
Each company researches and establishes the most effective way to manufacture its products and engineers and refines those processes for the greatest efficiency, throughput, and product integrity.
The challenge now is finding ways to digitize and automate those processes and establish data threads that give operators visibility into lines and machine health. Those shops that do will be closer to the Industry 4.0 vision of production enhanced by greater productivity, efficiency, agility, and profitability.
The technology exists today to digitally transform manufacturing processes and to centrally monitor and manage them. The most competitive operations have a roadmap to take them to this next level.