For several decades, factories have been transforming themselves from the century-old models of mass-production facilities into flexible work centers that can deliver on the promise of 1:1 marketing. Yet few businesses have taken full advantage of what the latest communication technologies can provide – one-of-a-kind production. As more production machines gain the versatility to make a variety of individual consumer goods as well as the ability to sense their environment and "talk" to each other, businesses that learn to "listen" to their machines will attain a tremendous marketplace advantage.
Advances in communication technologies are benefiting businesses by providing intelligent communication that can be networked in production centers. Armed with a wide range of sensors, communication nodes can now be wirelessly and cost-effectively placed throughout a manufacturing facility to achieve an unprecedented level of monitoring and control. This not only enables wireless communication but also allows nondeterministic communication linkages to be formed, thus helping businesses manage the combinatorial complexity of a mass-customization process.
To illustrate this enhanced production process, consider a factory where most of today‚Äôs modern practices have been deployed, such as design for manufacturability, electronic order-entry, computer numeric control programmable machines and tools, and kanban and just-in-time suppliers. Process control is typically done via wiring key points for monitoring. Machine health, compressor levels, and fluids also can be wired for monitoring. But cost and configuration problems pose barriers that limit the number of hardwired connections. And if a connection is not predetermined, it can be difficult to go back and reroute or install new wires for a change in configuration. Thus the foresight of what will be needed and cost to prewire the entire operation limit the granularity of what can be controlled.
Now consider the same modern factory, but with an installation of wireless programmable communication nodes that can intelligently monitor and control any point along a manufacturing process (Figure 1). This means that a specific customer order can enter the factory and be processed as if each work center understood exactly what to do for that particular product configuration. With local intelligence about its own operation, the ability to communicate to any other point in the factory, and the feedback that a growing variety of sensors can produce, each work center can efficiently produce unique work requests.
Mesh networking capabilities
This type of wireless mesh networking configuration supports mass customization in three significant ways. First, the system can build parts on demand from an available pool of components. Because every location that needs to call for parts belongs to the large network of communicating devices, a work center can easily monitor its current on-hand inventory level, store and act on a build list, and sense when any of its configuration parameters need adjustment or service. Furthermore, because the network is mesh, it can talk to any other node in the factory or send a request to a specific point or any node that is listening. The work center listens to the instructions that dictate what it is supposed to build and plans ahead to request the needed parts by talking to the right supply locations. With distributed RFID carried over this wireless network, part locations can be monitored and optimally routed.
Secondly, because the work center within a product process can know a build list ahead of time and call for parts as needed, it can also use its intelligence to decide to produce similar components or assemblies in anticipation of a coming set of similar orders. By talking to other dependent work centers, the work center can judge whether any delay for anticipatory component creation can be avoided given the current work schedule. This also addresses the need to reduce any setup time as much as possible.
Finally, because the mesh network allows communication among the intelligent nodes without having to predetermine the routing, factory configuration setup and changes can be as approachable as setting up an electronic spreadsheet; each cell knows how to perform its local operation and interacts and communicates with all other cells. Relationships and instructions throughout the process can be reprogrammed and/or reconfigured wirelessly over the air.
Intelligent mass production
Just like the amazing discoveries made possible through the evolution of ubiquitous computing, the evolution of intelligent factories can produce a single, custom product with the near efficiency of a mass operation. The pervasive infusion of intelligent wirelessly networked nodes like the mesh network pictured in Figure 2 will make this final step possible. Imagine what kind of factory businesses could build if they start with this technology.