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Equipping the Warfighter

Innovation on the production line: a business case [commentary].

case study innovation on the production line

Innovation and manufacturing are diametrically opposed.

Innovation is about creating something unique and different from scratch, a process that is by nature not necessarily refined or economical, or designed to be done within the limits and constraints of an existing production line. Manufacturing on the other hand is driven by tight margins and costs, with the ability to repeatedly produce the same quality product at high volumes. There is a need for this dynamic tension between innovation and manufacturing to drive the best value possible into a product.

Today’s focus on innovation is driven by a worldwide explosion of knowledge and new technologies. Criticism abounds for weapons procurement not being innovative; but look around our military services and you will find many things that we are doing right – innovation is occurring everywhere. The challenge for us is to find a way to shorten the time to identify and solve problems. And to do so in an iterative manner since the problems often evolve and morph in today’s competitive world of war.

Often quoted as major obstacles for large projects are cost overruns and schedule delays. Commercial industry, however, designs and engineers its manufacturing lines to control costs. A cost benefit approach produces a product that is affordable and justified. Designing for value identifies trades in performance that inform leaders early in the process of emerging capabilities. Our experience in rapid acquisitions, as opposed to major acquisitions, can teach us a great deal in how to solve these schedule delays and cost overruns. Engaging industry to understand cost performance trades can maximize the value of our investments. Prototyping products provides real equipment for initial assessment of performance.

Most often these rapidly innovative problem-solving solutions occur in our operational forces on the front line; in the most daunting environments you could imagine. People solve challenges at the point of the spear. Solutions are often commercial products which never satisfy all the requirements, but “good enough” is far better than nothing at all. If we could negotiate all our projects like this, using the “good enough” measure instead of over specifying the requirements of our projects, we would far reduce the number of cost overruns.

I suggest that this should not be a surprise. The young men and women who choose to serve our nation are bright, hard-working, and selfless. It is in their nature to be willing to take on the challenges they face and solve them without a perfect solution in hand. For them “time to market” is a matter of grave consequence.

On the other extreme of innovation and manufacturing from rapid acquisitions is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Acclaimed for its success, DARPA’s design model is touted as the solution for everything. This organization strives for an order of magnitude increase in performance. It is a model of success. The challenge faced here is to replicate and adopt the success of DARPA to various other programs and areas. They push boundaries and take risks. They fail often and fail quickly. Much like our operational units that endure risks and become stronger for it; DARPA learns from both successes and failures. They drive the far future requirements.

Where DARPA’s resources of time and/or funding are abundant and relatively unrestricted, rapid acquisitions processes are effective in resolving urgent needs when time is critical. Classic major programs have far too many requirements to be able to recreate the DARPA innovative environment or the rapid acquisitions method. The challenge then is how to adapt the acquisition process to be able to better incorporate trades in requirements to produce best value for the service. In my experience, the most innovative asset that a program has is not the process for iteration and prototyping but its people and their capacity for creative thinking.

Engaging our operational units and our defense industry in their projects provides a reliable source of information on the potential capabilities long before they become a reality. DARPA prototypes provide real equipment for initial assessment of performance and concepts of operations.

Empowering our combat forces with the tools and knowledge to identify the cause of the problem and to experiment with solutions that impact the consequences of these challenges is key to quick, innovative solutions. People are the key to any problem-solving challenge. Scientists and engineers can go to the source of the problem and work side by side with the professionals that deal with the issues. First-hand knowledge quickly brings clarity to the problem. Forward deploying capability resolves problems, prototypes solutions, measures the suitability of the solution. The interaction between operators and engineers is vital to create innovative solutions in the field.

The Bottom Line: People innovate when they understand the problem design to best value, and collaborate with others in learning from their successes and failures.

Nick Justice is executive director of PowerAmerica, the public-private power electronics manufacturing institute led by North Carolina State University. A retired major general, Justice Justice capped a 41-year Army career in 2012 as commanding general of the Research, Development and Engineering Command.

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Profile image of Kerly Chiang

This paper builds upon Berkhout et al.'s (2010) cyclic innovation model (CIM). This model was shown to provide an effective framework for understanding and managing the innovation process and to address many of the shortcomings of previous models. Building on that article we have applied CIM to an in-depth case study featuring a formable paperboard technology within the packaging industry. Using data gathered from 28 interviews conducted over a three year period, CIM, for the first time, is applied to a low technology industry. In so doing, this paper contributes to a growing body of literature exploring low technology industries and, in turn, demonstrates the wider applicability of CIM beyond technology intensive industries.

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Case Studies

Visual Components Logo

Member Since 2011

Visual Components is a leading developer of 3D manufacturing simulation software and solutions. Founded in 1999 by a team of simulation experts, we started with a humble goal – to make manufacturing design and simulation technology easy to use and accessible to manufacturing organizations of all size

Content Filed Under:

Industry: Furniture Furniture

Application: Assembly and Simulation/3D Modeling Assembly and Simulation/3D Modeling

Toolcraft Case Study: The First Production Line For

POSTED 11/25/2020

The typical customer of today wants individual products on the one hand, but on the other hand also wants low prices. However, these two goals seem to contradict each other: The diversity of customer wishes leads to a high variance of products and thus to increasing complexity of production. However, there is a solution – customized mass production or mass customization.

The trend towards customized mass production is not only evident in the automotive industry, where customers have long been able to choose between countless extras, but also in the furniture market. This is particularly true for bathroom furniture, which often has to be installed in a narrowly defined space and where a wide range of dimensions, colors, and surfaces are offered. Another complexity is added by the technical conditions, i.e. the number, shape, and size of the washbasins and the number and design of the siphons.

Most furniture manufacturers would be overwhelmed by the task of converting their operations or production facilities to customized mass production under their own steam. But fortunately, there are specialists for such tasks, such as the company MBFZ toolcraft GmbH from Georgensgmünd in South Germany. The company is a pioneer in advanced technologies such as individual turn-key robot solutions. MBFZ toolcraft GmbH, which has received several awards of excellence, was founded only in 1989 and now employs around 400 people. Its customers include market leaders from the semiconductor industry, aerospace, medical technology, the optical industry, special machinery as well as motorsports and automotive.

Required by the customer: Production with “batch size 1“

To meet the market requirements for customized mass production, a well-known manufacturer of bathroom furniture asked MBFZ toolcraft GmbH to develop a robot system for the automated assembly of drawers for bathroom furniture. The drawers, with or without siphon, were to be of various sizes, from the smallest drawer with 170 mm to the largest with 1450 mm. 

The furniture manufacturer also demanded the production of a wide range of variants with individual material and color selection with “batch size 1”; i.e. it should be possible to produce each piece of furniture as a custom-made product if required. With modern production technology, even batch size 1 can be profitable for the manufacturer and affordable for the customer.

Before automation, assembly of the drawers was carried out manually with hand tools; the drawer frames were pressed to the floor using a pneumatic press. The new plant was designed to enable production in two shifts; it was to facilitate manual processes and automate monotonous activities.

The production line was planned entirely virtually with Visual Components

Following the customer’s request, a feasibility study and visualization were carried out in the concept phase. For this purpose, MBFZ toolcraft GmbH used the factory planning and simulation software from Visual Components. With Visual Components, the company uses an ideal system, because, with the software for 3D factory simulation from the Finnish company, Toolcraft can design, simulate, optimize, and validate customized production systems.

case study innovation on the production line

In the newly designed system, the component data are recorded and processed by a scanner after they have been placed on a conveyer belt. A robot feeds the individual components to an automatic assembly station where they are screwed or pressed together. Then the fully assembled drawers are placed on a conveyor belt by the robot and transported to a station where they are manually removed and picked or stored.

The special feature of this project: It is the first plant for a “batch size 1” production in furniture manufacturing. The planning, implementation, and construction of the plant took about a year and three months.

case study innovation on the production line

The library of factory components from Visual Components facilitates planning

One of the challenges was that the assembly line requires complex sensor technology and monitoring, because the components must be positioned in precise relation to each other. To ensure full flexibility, it was necessary to implement the handling of all component variants with only one flexible gripper system. Furthermore, a fully automated assembly press had to be developed and integrated into the production line.

case study innovation on the production line

The starting point when planning such a system is usually a 2D layout. Based on this layout, factory components such as conveyor system, assembly press, robot, and grippers are assembled to form a production line. MBFZ toolcraft GmbH used the library provided by Visual Components; if a specific machine was not available in the library, it was created from an existing CAD model and inserted into the library. Visual Components has interfaces to all major CAD systems.

Visual Components facilitates the design of the production line

Visual Components’ solutions played a key role in the successful completion of the project. First of all, the entire plant was set up and visualized virtually. The virtual model was used to ensure the basic feasibility of the concept requested by the customer.

The exact dimensions of the factory components are stored in the library from Visual Components. This made it possible to carry out very simple tests on the virtual model to determine the reach of the robot and the accessibility of all work areas. This facilitated the positioning of the assembly press, the robot, and the conveyors.

case study innovation on the production line

Production cycle times were optimized with Visual Components

The Visual Components’ library also contains other important attributes, such as the movement parameters of robots, which can be used to carry out exact time and movement simulations. As a result, the entire system could be optimized by determining the minimum possible cycle times on the virtual model. By doing so, the company was able to prove the economic benefit of the system to the customer.

Thanks to Visual Components, it was not only possible to determine the technical feasibility and quantify the economic benefit; the model created with Visual Components also made it much easier to illustrate the system and the production sequence to the responsible employee at the customer, the furniture manufacturer.

Visualization with Visual Components illustrates even complex systems

Bernd Krebs, Managing Director of MBFZ toolcraft GmbH, says: “We use Visual Components’ solutions in our company for all projects that require visualization and feasibility analysis”.

We use Visual Components' solutions in our company for all projects that require visualization and feasibility analysis

Bernd Krebs, Managing Director of MBFZ toolcraft GmbH

MBFZ toolcraft GmbH particularly appreciates the fact that the process steps, even for complex systems, can be easily visualized and presented to “non-technicians”.

“Budgeting and pricing are also greatly simplified because we can set up the entire system digitally beforehand,” says Bernd Krebs. “We are also planning to use Visual Components to simulate processes in other manufacturing areas of expertise, e.g. additive manufacturing and machining, mold making and plastic injection molding as well as automated quality inspection”.

A win-win situation for all involved

As a result, MBFZ toolcraft GmbH and Visual Components have helped the bathroom furniture manufacturer to fulfill its customers’ wishes for individual yet affordable products. As a pleasant side effect, it can be noted that the production throughput could be increased while maintaining the same quality, and that many monotonous tasks are now carried out by robots – a win-win situation for all involved!

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