The future of manufacturing and more particularly flexible assembly solutions will be driven by advances in control technologies and control strategies. Smarter, flexible manufacturing cells are the goal. Machines that can change from one part model to another on the fly. Equipment that is smart enough to adjust the order of processes to remain productive as it waits for a missing component. Stations that can sense it is making a less than optimum part and can correct in real time.
Most of the individual technologies to accomplish this exist today. The bottle neck is that the control solutions available do not make the task friendly. The typical control architecture today is many individual controllers specializing in a single task all coordinated through one central controller; normally a PLC.
Some innovative, creative Assembly Engineers are leading the way with very cool, leading edge assembly cells that are flexible and powerful with the ability to produce a variety of parts and to sense the process and process variables on the fly and take corrective actions. These cells and stations do exist. However most have one thing in common. They are a Controls Engineer’s nightmare. Most were created with many thousands of hours of PLC programming and debug work by a team of Controls Engineers, typically one of which is of rare talent.
These Engineers who created the solution are the only people who can efficiently work on the cell. Pity the poor maintenance guy who must try and debug a problem a year later when the “creators of the monster” are off to their next project.
Standardized protocols and communication standards are all part of the solution. Some Engineers are working on solutions that move away from the centralized control model discussed above to a more decentralized control model. While others are moving toward even more centralized control solutions. The solution is probably a high bred strategy of both.
Whatever the solution, the major innovations in manufacturing over the next 25 years will be control based innovations. Control technologies and strategies that unleash the technical power available today in new ways and new combinations. Sure, we will develop new processes and new materials, but nothing will unleash our productivity more than better control solutions that allow us to fully and efficiently capitalize on the technologies that already exist today.
The factories of the future, the factories in our imagination are only limited by the control technologies available today.