June 09, 2015      

There is some skepticism about whether advanced manufacturing — automated, flexible, and networked — can remake manufacturing globally. It would not be the first time a grandiose banner was hung on new technology.

The difference is that the trends underpinning expectations for advanced manufacturing are solid. They’re not even particularly new.

China’s rising labor costs continue to make outsourcing less attractive. Serendipitously, automation software is rapidly growing more sophisticated, and components such as sensors are more powerful and less expensive. The combination of the two trends is resulting in systems that are deft and more flexible.

Perhaps the seminal example of this arose three years ago with a manufacturing update by electronics and appliance maker Royal Philips N.V. when it switched to advanced manufacturing for its shaver lines.

Changing tastes on a razor’s edge

As it turns out, the electric shaver market is far more granular than men’s vs. women’s models. Consumer taste for razors is driven as much by self-image as by shaver features, and both factors change rapidly and fairly often, making it difficult for manufacturers to stay relevant.

Indeed, that is what was behind Philips’ move to advanced manufacturing. Robotics is the only option for profitably creating low-volume and high-variability value-added — essentially niche — products. Interest beyond the automotive industry is growing globally, with Transparency Market Research predicting the industrial robotics market to reach $44.48 billion by 2020.

In addition, consumers in developed economies want, if not unique products, purchases that are not mass-produced or of low quality. Retailers and consumer brand managers want to capitalize on fads within a few weeks or even days of their appearance.

Both impulses require smaller and more-automated factories, which are nimbler and easier to reconfigure compared with traditional large-scale, distant production lines. This change is generally called “Industry 4.0,” the fourth industrial revolution. (The first revolution was the steam engine, the second was conveyor belt, and electronics automation was the third.)

A Philips production line

Philips is working toward Industry 4.0.

One result of this trend is the return of manufacturing from China and elsewhere, where salaries are rising and factories are designed to pump out large volumes of standardized products 24 hours a day. Given commodity pricing and the investment in large lines, even a short pause is a costly incident in such an environment.

This is where Philips comes in. Few people would think of shavers as being faddish or status symbols. Yet the Amsterdam-based multinational makes no fewer than 60 shaver lines and 600 models of electric razors.

Product changes, sometimes occurring daily, cannot be accommodated on that scale with overseas workers or with traditional robotics. The only financially feasible alternative was to use the small, more flexible and less-expensive robotics in advanced manufacturing.

Using U.S. hardware and German integration

Philips decided to create an assembly operation at a facility in Drachten, Netherlands. It is a climate-controlled facility, lit within like a big-box retailer, studded with robotics systems from Adept Technology Inc. German systems integrator Bremer Werk fur Montagesysteme GmbH (BWM) partnered with Pleasanton, Calif.-based Adept for setup.

The Adept hardware included 128 robots such as Cobra SCARA s350, s600, and s800 models and Viper six-axis s350 and s850 machines. All of the robots needed vision sensors. About a third of units did not have the sensors, and they were outfitted with ACE AdeptSight vision guidance. Forty AnyFeeder flexible feeders were deployed, as were an unspecified number of SmartController CX motion controllers.

Setups like this call for communication between each machine, and that linkage is giving birth to the Internet of Things (IoT). Operations are more efficient when everything on a factory floor knows the status of everything else. And, more broadly, robotics can tie into back-office IT systems, enabling the enterprise to operate more as a single, coordinated entity.

About 2,000 people work at the Drachten plant, which produces 8 million devices each year without having to swap out a single robotics system. About 1,350 people work in production; the rest work in research and development. Adept, Bremer, and Philips have declined to say much about the project, including its cost.

Adept has been involved in similar assembly setups. Working with Metro Automation Inc., Adept created a flex-cell robotic workstation for Siemens Ltd.’s communications devices unit. The Cobra 600 SCARA-based cell was put on casters so that it could be moved as needed and reconfigured for rapid reprogramming and effector/feeder changes.

Without specifically calling out advanced manufacturing as a factor, Moody’s Investors Services in May said cost-cutting moves by Philips will improve earnings before interest, taxes, and amortization significantly in the next 12 to 18 months.

Indeed, Moody’s predicts that the European industrial automation sector will grow 4 to 5 percent in aggregate this year and next year. Industrial software and signaling on the continent will grow faster — 6 to 8 percent in aggregate over the same period.