Remember when you were a kid, there was only one — maybe two — types of Oreo cookies.  Not anymore, thanks in part to flexible manufacturing. These days Oreos come in a ton of different shapes, styles, and packages, depending on where you live in the world.

Multiple Oreo Flavours (Image source:
Multiple Oreo Flavours (Image source:

Mike Frommelt, field director at Omron, took up the subject of flexible manufacturing at Design and Manufacturing Minneapolis last month.

Frommelt believes flexibility in manufacturing is becoming more available through the use of advanced manufacturing technology. The pressure to develop flexible manufacturing comes from the customer who seeks greater variety in products. Product variety has been restricted in the past due to the high costs.

The cost of product variety has changed with the modularization of the manufacturing equipment. Customization of products comes from flexibility, and with that flexibility comes the modularization of the manufacturing equipment. “Modularization allows smaller batches to stay profitable. Flexibility requires smart modularization,” said Frommelt. “Modular means you can move things around easily, accommodating changeover and making changeover easy. Now you can change the machine using a simple item on the HMI.”

Modularization begins with individual machines, but to get to truly efficient flexibility, all of the equipment together must become a modular system. “The parts that make up smart modularization can be designed for easy changeover. As demand increases, the capability of the machines must change, as well,” said Frommelt. “It goes from a singular modular machine to a complete modularization. The entire system becomes modular so it’s easy to set up and easy to changeover.”

Part of the process of creating a flexible manufacturing system is to make sure that system is implicitly efficient. For example, the system should be able to send an alert to problems and let the operator know before things break. You can limit liability through traceability. Tracking when events happen and where the products have been is part of the traceability. Traceability is critical. It drives down costs by identifying and preventing non-conforming products. You can use centralized control, one environment for all motion, vision, safety, and robots along the whole system. Any system or machine can now connect using open networks such as Ethernet IP.

When machines are connected, you can collect data across the entire system. That data supports both flexibility and efficiency. The use of manufacturing data is not just an add-on; it’s a critical factor in attaining real flexibility. The ability to collect and store the data becomes a competitive factor.

>Read more by Rob Spiegel, Design News, 10/3/16


Flexible Manufacturing Reduces Costs, Increases Variety … Think Oreo