At a glance

  • Self-organized manufacturing cells benefit from digital communication regarding order overview, material request and problem notifications
  • Transparency about lead times and production data is a key digitization lever
  • Digital worker assistance solutions empower cells with high product variability

Digitization offers factories numerous opportunities to optimize processes and improve their competitiveness. Countless digitization projects can be implemented on the way to a fully automated factory. From digital checklists to fully automated lines, the sky’s the limit. 

And this is precisely where the problem lies. It’s not just factories that feel overwhelmed by the monster task that the nice word “digitization potential” brings along. System integrators also often struggle to find a good approach to the topic and to show their customers accessible and tangible digitization projects.

If this sounds familiar, you’ve come to the right place. Starting with the digitization potential of cellular manufacturing, we’ve created a series of guides that analyze individual manufacturing principles for their challenges and present concrete digital solution approaches.

Use this guide as inspiration for your digitization offering in general or use it as a checklist of possible digitization projects in your next customer meeting.

But now to the actual content!

Making cellular manufacturing tangible

If systems integration for factories is your home turf, the term cellular manufacturing is certainly anything but a foreign concept to you. But if you go through your customer file and think about which digitization topics you place best with which customers, you probably haven’t categorized them according to their manufacturing principles.

Cellular manufacturing describes operating resources arranged by product families. This means that all activities and resources required to manufacture a (partial) product are collected at a “cell”. Within the cell, workpieces are processed according to the flow principle, which is why lead time is the most important KPI of cellular manufacturing. Employees can either be assigned to individual stations or move with the workpiece. Within the shift, orders assigned to the cell are processed by the employees in a self-organized manner.

That’s why it’s useful to spend a moment thinking about what kinds of factories typically rely on cellular manufacturing as a core – or at least not unimportant – manufacturing principle.

First of all, these are usually companies with discrete manufacturing and (partial) products that can be transported from station to station without much effort. In addition, manufacturing cells are mostly used when flexibility is required in terms of the type and number of work objects, for example, small batch or variant production.

Go through your customer file with these selection criteria in mind. Can you think of customers who rely on manufacturing cells? Maybe the vacuum cleaner manufacturer who called last week? Or the light fixture manufacturer you talked to a few months ago? 

For the purpose of this guide, it’s not important that you have a complete list of potential customers. But if you have a concrete example in mind, it will be easier for you to understand the challenges and digital solution approaches that follow. A general guide to identifying customers who are open to digitization can be found here

Frequent challenges of cellular manufacturing and their digital solution approaches

Imagine your customer’s production cell. What do you see? The typical characteristics probably come to mind: A handful of stations, including maybe one or two machines. A local warehouse with the typical Kanban cards. A team that receives its order list in the morning and processes it in a self-organized manner throughout the day.

But maybe you are reminded of the stress that the worker has when a problem occurs at his station and the workpieces to be processed pile up. Or the frustration of the team when relevant materials were not delivered on time. Again. Because with the many advantages of cellular manufacturing, there are at least as many challenges.

In the next few paragraphs, we want to uncover these challenges step by step and point out digitization options that should make your next sales meeting easier for you.

To do this, we follow the typical process on the production cell.

Download checklist

Our checklist helps you to identify the digitization potential of factories with cellular manufacturing.

    Challenge # 1
    What’s on the agenda for today?

    At the beginning of the shift, a work list is communicated to the cell. In most factories, this is done by handing out printed order and parts lists, which the cell processes in a self-organized manner during the course of the shift. Sounds easy in theory.

    In order to sort and organize itself, the cell needs a good and simple overview of the orders. Especially when problems arise and the processing sequence has to be changed during the course of the shift, it is often difficult to keep track of things.

    Digital order lists or a planning app that allows orders to be put in the correct order using drag and drop can be a simple but effective help here.

    In addition, orders can change at a later date. Or an urgent “executive order” has to be put in between. Analog communication, e.g. through newly distributed order lists in paper form, is not designed for such ad-hoc changes. It slows down the process, which means that production loses speed and flexibility.

    Digital order management can help here. A worker app with an ERP integration can communicate worklists and changes via push message to the cell, so that changes can be reacted upon more quickly.

    Challenge # 2
    Ready, steady, go! But is everything here?

    Once the cell has decided which order should be processed first, the next step is review of materials.

    Material availability is a decisive factor for timely order processing. This applies both to the basic components used at the individual cell and to any special materials for selected orders. In the worst case, missing materials can bring an entire cell to a standstill or lead to additional work due to retrofitting for another order.

    A digital solution can significantly shorten the time between noticing the absence of critical material and communicating it to intralogistics. This can be done, for example, in the form of push messages to the forklift driver with information on the required material and its storage location.

    Such a solution is not limited to transport orders for missing material. An integration of the cell’s warehouse with the intralogistics of the factory can automatically trigger material inquiries if the inventory falls below a certain threshold.

    This can be solved, for example, by registering the material use per workpiece carrier. Such digitization then has the potential to replace an analog Kanban system and reduce the required inventory all together.

    Challenge # 3
    Is everything set up correctly?

    The order has been selected, the material is available, now it’s time to … set up the machines and equipment.

    Set-up time plays a central role, especially in small series and variant production, which requires conversion to a new product variant several times a day or even for each order.

    A key challenge here is knowing the correct setting parameters. This becomes all the more relevant, the higher the complexity of the cell and the diversity of the (partial) products. As such, the speed and accuracy of the set-up process heavily depend on the knowledge and experience of the responsible employee.

    In order to shorten the set-up time, digital instructions and so-called “skill matrices” can be helpful. Various functionalities can be packaged under the collective term “digital worker assistance”, which can range from simple checklists to machines integrated with the worker app. The training of new employees can also be promoted through such solutions.

    A further digital suppot of the set-up process can be automatically set equipment.

    Even though the individual automation options depend heavily on the machines and other equipment used at the cell, two practicable solutions can be envisaged. If the order has a size of n > 1, a central app with stored setup parameters can trigger the correct setting. If the order size is n = 1, scanning the workpiece carrier at the first station can trigger an automatic adjustment of the equipment.

    Challenge # 4
    Everything’s running. Are we on time?

    The cell is operational and processing the order. However, the worries are not over yet. Since the stations are interrelated and work steps are dependent on one another in their order, the greatest concern is the speed of order progress. This is, because specified lead time quotas need to be met and orders planned for the shift need to be completed on time.

    At this point, transparency about the progress of the order and the detection of any bottlenecks is of central importance.

    A digital solution supporting this need, can be a matching of workpiece carriers to orders, so that processing times can be recorded per station. The recorded data can then be visualized in real time so that workers receive continuous feedback and the cell can optimize itself.

    Additionally, such a solution can be expanded to include further data collection. More on this in the following sections.

    Challenge # 5
    Houston, we have a problem!

    The processing of the order is progressing well and everything seems to be OK. And then a problem arises.

    Errors or problems at a station disrupt operations and thus extend throughput times. If a problem occurs, the worker must therefore take care of fixing it or removing it from the line as quickly as possible.

    Operationally, this usually means that a quality manager or shift supervisor has to be called to fix the problem or rework the defective part. Problem reporting is usually done analogously, which has negative effects on productivity and the speed of problem resolution.

    As with the material requirement, one possible solution is to link workers and relevant employees outside the cell via a communication app. The worker can report problems promptly and attach relevant problem information directly in the app.

    If the problem lies with the workpiece and operating and machine data were recorded on the workpiece carrier, this data can also be made available in the communication app. This gives the responsible employee a direct overview of the situation and promotes faster problem resolution.

    Challenge # 6
    Mission Complete. How did it go?

    Once the job has been completed, the cell’s operational responsibility ends. Indirectly, a further process is now initiated: The analysis of processing time and quality, with the aim of optimizing throughput times and rejects, in short “operational excellence”.

    The results of operational excellence initiatives are heavily dependent on the underlying database. The more and the more detailed machine and operating data are collected during the process, the easier it is to derive optimization steps and, for example, adjust the suggested cycle times for an order.

    The digital collection of data at each station and machine can provide a great advantage here. As in previous examples, tracking of the workpiece carrier can provide the basis for such a solution. The workpiece carrier then not only records processing times, but can also save machine and test data or manually entered parameters at each station.

    Challenge # 7
    The delivery is out. But the customer complains!

    Everything ready, next job? Almost. The last aspect that can pose a challenge to cellular manufacturing is the traceability and documentation of the production data and built-in elements.

    The subject of the traceability of assembly steps and the tracking of individual components or batches is a central element for quality assurance in many manufacturing companies. In some cases, the product is even subject to a documentation requirement, which is not uncommon for automotive suppliers, for example.

    Here, too, a good database is the basis. If a complaint is made about a delivered product, it can be difficult to identify other affected products and to withdraw them from circulation without precise traceability of the production steps and the materials used.

    As with quality analysis and post-processing of defective parts, digital tracking of processing and machine data at workpiece level enables the product to be traced back. In this way, quality assurance is promoted and documentation obligations can be easily met.

    Phew, that was a lot of information

    As said at the beginning, the possibilities for digitization in the factory are almost endless. But if you pick out an area and go through it in a structured manner, the monster quickly turns into a series of promising, easy-to-grasp and relatively quick-to-implement “speedboat projects”. And these speedboat projects can pave the way for your customer to move towards a fully automated factory and position you as a trustworthy partner along the way.

    Download our checklist for identifying digitization projects in cellular manufacturing. It summarizes the challenges and suggested solutions mentioned above and can serve as a cheat sheet for your next customer appointment.

    Learn more about how to convince any factory of your projects in our blog post Five steps to a project proposal that factories will love.

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