Thoughts on the theme of 'flexibility'
Important trends do not change from one day to the next. For example, it has been observed in assembly and handling technology for some time that an increasing number of companies are searching for modular systems that provide the optimum balance between flexibility and profitability. Progress is achieved in intensive development work conducted year after year, which makes a noticeable difference in practical applications.
The latest solutions will be presented at the leading international trade fair for automation and mechatronics, AUTOMATICA 2010, which will take place on the grounds of the New Munich Trade Fair Centre from 8 to 11 June 2010.
Flexible systems both in assembly as in the test facility area are indispensable when producing industries have to react economically and quickly to fluctuations in numbers of pieces, changes in the degree of automation, development of variants and production relocations. Especially when systems must be operable after a short time, the benefits of flexible systems become obvious. Assembly expert Franz Plasswich, Division Manager and officer with statutory authority for the Automotive Division at teamtechnik GmbH, also points out the cost aspect: "In the current economic situation, the trend is increasingly to refitting existing systems instead of investing in new acquisitions. This can be achieved relatively easily and inexpensively with modular assembly systems."
But flexibility has many faces. It refers not only to the assembly process itself. Jean-François Bauer, Head of Marketing and Business Development at Mikron Assembly Technology in Boudry, Switzerland, expanded on this with another technological aspect: "The flexibility of feed technology is often decisive for the overall flexibility of a system, for example, when it is a question of the number of varieties. The required assembly speed also plays a role with respect to flexibility. It makes a big difference whether 20 or 60 cycles per minute are required. In addition, there is the complexity of the assembly process. These factors set limits to the achievable flexibility."
How a complex assembly process affects the achievable flexibility of a system can be illustrated using the example of an igniter for airbag gas generators. Because a wire with a diameter of 0.02 mm must be processed here, it is more a question of repeatable preciseness than of flexibility.
Flexible assembly systems provide numerous possibilities. For example, they make it possible to increase an investment successively. This means that the user first relies on a minimum system configuration at the start of production. With increasing numbers of pieces and type variants, this system can then be expanded to adapt to the new production requirements. Another advantage is the shorter delivery times, which are made possible thanks to the combining of existing components. Individual modules or processes can be implemented parallel and only combined with the platform at the end.
Flexibility is also required in developing assembly lines. To keep the time until their products are introduced to the market, many companies already design suitable production and assembly systems during the development stage. As a result, system suppliers often only have planning sketches about the production environment of a system or about the product, which contain many uncertain variables when they submit bids. Then requests for changes increase during project realization. Additional process steps have to be built in or the sequence of processes has to be changed. This can be done more easily using a modular system than with a completely linked system, especially when flexible project management also exists with the possibility of simultaneous engineering.
Finally, modules that have been standardised need not be developed anew for each system. Tried-and-tested and with a continual improvement process, their use increase process reliability and consequently maximum system availability. The lower costs for a system put together in this way round out the numerous advantages. It's not surprising that many mechanical engineers strive to design this type of system.
It can be observed at the same time that assembly tasks often require a very special solution from design engineers, for which they have to think in completely new dimensions. "Consequently, many of our member companies still consider themselves consciously as special purpose mechanical engineers and have accepted the batch size of 1 for their systems as inevitable," stated Daniela Dietz, responsible for assembly and handling technology in VDMA Association Robotics+Automation. While standard modules exclude many special requests, users can really go to the limit at such special purpose mechanical engineers. It is important there that both sides deal fairly with additional demands. For example, the machine supplier has the possibility to provide a clearly defined scope, within which requests for changes are covered in the system price. If the system is already half finished and the customer comes with new information, which makes substantial adaptations necessary, the mechanical engineer should formulate an offer for the changes immediately. Additional costs and new delivery data must be included in the offer, and the customer agrees to this with his signature.
As a highlight at AUTOMATICA 2010, visitors will find the greatest concentration of suppliers of turnkey assembly systems in Europe at this time. A majority of the assembly system suppliers from Germany and Switzerland as well as numerous renowned suppliers from outside of Europe will present their products.
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