MCLEAN, VA-Companies that design and build custom assembly systems are at the forefront of manufacturing innovation, occupying industry's adventurous fringe.

Assemblers today are confronting globalization, leap-frogging technology, demand for instant service and expectations of the very best quality. These business challenges will only become more daunting tomorrow. Globalization, for example, has already taken many traditional users of assembly systems offshore. It is of paramount importance to recognize this and adjust business strategy accordingly.

No longer is it acceptable to ship things off as an exporter and deal with situations on different continents and time zones from afar. End users need their suppliers to have a presence and commitment to rapid response. In addition, automated assembly is no longer just an alternative to high labor costs and expensive benefits. It is increasingly being used in countries with an abundance of cheap labor, such as China, where accuracy and reliability combined with high productivity are essential to being competitive-just like in the United States.

Builders of custom assembly systems find themselves facing these kinds of challenges head-on, enjoying as they do a symbiotic relationship with the manufacturing community they serve. In many ways, companies that design and build custom assembly systems are at the forefront of manufacturing innovation, occupying industry's adventurous fringe where engineering creativity is the mark of success.

I see a number of trends dictated by end users having significant impact on the way systems are built today. For example, there is a demand for diagnostics to increase machine uptime. Manufacturing equipment is also increasingly being interfaced with factory management systems to better control part quality; improve system reliability, traceability, data collection and flexibility; and reduce life cycle cost. Other trends include the wish of end users to simplify contractual transactions-and risk-by dealing only with a single company that takes the lead for a turnkey system. The lead company takes on single-source responsibility and can outsource major portions of the line at its discretion.

Most custom systems builders need to solve specific production problems for specific manufacturers. These projects are not only one-of-a-kind, but often first-of-a-kind, with all the engineering and project management challenges this entails. Relatively few companies in the United States have chosen to work in this market. But, those that do are using their individuality and special skills as a foundation to build a broader approach to marketing, managing their own businesses and serving assemblers. That approach is facilitated through the Custom Automated Systems Group (CASG) of AMT-The Association For Manufacturing Technology.

Bill Bodine, president of Bodine Assembly and Test Systems (Bridgeport, CT), refers to CASG as a "core group of specialists who continually move U.S. manufacturing forward year after year." According to Bodine, "The technological advancements that CASG member companies make available to their user base keeps them at the leading edge of the productivity curve while elevating quality capabilities to a level never before realized."

In this role, CASG helps identify and solve the challenges facing systems builders today.

For example, it has long been obvious that both builders and the manufacturers they serve benefit when manufacturers involve assembly system designers at an earlier stage in the design process to make their products more "assembly friendly." A few minor changes on a part can dramatically simplify its assembly, often with considerable cost reduction for the manufacturer. Unfortunately, ever-shorter lead times make this difficult.

Shorter lead times pose another problem in that tryout parts are sometimes not available for machine runoff. According to Gene Haffely, president of the Advanced Automated Assembly Div. at Assembly & Test Worldwide (Dayton, OH), having only a handful of parts means far greater emphasis being directed at design and debugging features. This is compounded as more systems have to cope with larger families of parts instead of just one.

Yet another challenge facing systems builders is the emphasis that lean manufacturing principles have placed on reducing cost and floor space. However, Clark Neft, president of Mikron Assembly Technology (Denver), stresses that this does not mean automation is declining in the United States. In fact, he says, the situation is quite the reverse. "Many plants are automating as a way to offset high legacy costs," he says, "and need to automate to keep plants open and remain competitive."

Tom Kramer, president of sortimat Technology LP (Schaumburg, IL), notes that his company is also addressing lean with a new space-efficient, standard platform that shortens the time-to-market and optimizes the use of manufacturing floor space.

Ultimately, if American manufacturing is to survive, and even flourish, systems builders and end users of assembly equipment need to work together to communicate.

"Builders need to partner with their customers to achieve satisfaction through defined results, becoming partners in productivity," says Tom Braunm, managing director of PIA Group Inc. (Cincinnati). "We take responsibility for a customer's complete result, rather than simply delivering a piece of equipment. A supplier's success is a reflection of how successful the customer becomes."

"Automatic assembly is the last frontier of major cost reduction available to North American industry," agrees Doug Swanson, president of Swanson-Erie Corp. (Erie, PA). "Equally significant is 100 percent quality control. The twin trademarks of automatic assembly are low cost and high quality."

Looking ahead, John D. Veleris, chairman of Wes-Tech Automation Solutions (Buffalo Grove, IL) says, "The future of assembly technology companies will not depend on fragmented metrics such as cost, quality and deliveries that measure commodities. Rather, it will depend on incremental cash flow and return on invested capital, both measuring value. You may want to redesign your dashboard, if you have not already done so."