As traditional manufacturing collides with the technological world, automated production has come to the fore as one of the most profound instruments of improved manufacturing efficiency.
In this piece, we take a close look at the three core models of automated production and explore the central role of CPQ, and the product rules that drive it, in achieving a seamless automated production process that extends from initial customer interaction right up to the final shipped product.
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What is Automated Production?
Automated production is a process in which the control and monitoring functions previously performed by humans are transferred to instruments and automated devices. Of course, automated production has been going on for decades. Still, in this era of Industry 4.0, it’s being elevated to new heights of technological advancement powered by artificial intelligence, augmented reality, robotics, 3D printing, and the cloud. More significant gains in productivity are being made each day.
The Three Core Models of Automated Production
On the shop floor itself, automated production falls into three main categories – Fixed (hard) Automation, Programmable Automation, and Flexible (soft) Automation. Let’s take a close look at each of these in turn.
1. Fixed (Hard) Automated Production
Fixed automation is “hard-wired” into your equipment configuration – the programmed commands are mostly contained “inside” the machines (cams, gears, wiring, etc.) To change the automated processes, you have to switch out your hardware, which is expensive and potentially risks the stability of your broader manufacturing infrastructure.
Common in the automotive industry and automatic assembly machines, the costs of fixed automated production are front loaded, and the initial investment is high. If you’re manufacturing products in smaller batches, this form of automated production will most likely prove prohibitively expensive. But there are substantial benefits to going down the fixed route – rapid production rates mean low unit costs, which is ideal for manufacturing in large volumes.
2. Programmable Automated Production
Programmable automated production (seen in industrial robots) is better suited to manufacturing products in batches (several dozen to several thousand units at a time.) Unlike fixed automated production, where machines are “hard-wired” for their roles, programmable automated production allows for the reprogramming of machinery. Once reprogrammed, machines can perform different tasks, accommodating the tooling requirements for each new batch.
The reprogramming and changeover processes take time, however, with a period of non-production followed by testing. Unlike fixed automated production, programmable equipment lacks the specialization required for maximum efficiency. Hence, production is generally lower, although more flexible, agile, and suited to a broader range of tasks.
3. Flexible Automated Production
Flexible automated production is an offshoot of programmable automated production designed to address some of the latter’s inherent shortcomings. As discussed above, reprogramming equipment for each batch is slow and, therefore, expensive. But with flexible automated production, changeover can take place more quickly as it’s carried out on a computer rather than on the production machinery itself. A single robotic arm can be programmed to carry out a wide range of tasks such as inserting screws, drilling holes, sanding, welding, adding rivets, or spray painting objects on an assembly line.
With flexible automated production, numerous different products can be manufactured one right after another. However, to achieve such versatility, flexible automated production is far more limited in its scope and can only handle a narrow range of different product styles. What’s more, the flexible machinery is expensive, costing considerably more than fixed production technology, and can only be operated at a medium pace.
Bonus: Totally-Integrated Automation (TIA)
TIA is an automated production model pioneered by Siemens back in 1996. With TIA, an open-source architecture connects all the components of automated production – hardware, software, and higher-level systems and services through horizontal and vertical information flows.
It’s a modular approach – new technologies can be merged into the infrastructure at any time, making the portfolio future-proof and suitable for all industries and companies regardless of their phase of automation or degree of digitalization. If flexibility is top of your list of priorities, then TIA could be right for you. Still, it’s certainly not the easy option due to the complexity inherent in a system with so many “moving parts.”
How Can CPQ Product Rules Drive Automated Production for Engineer-to-Order Companies?
Automated production is not limited to just the manufacturing stage. The process begins with the customer, directly at the point of sale, and follows right the way through to the finished article. It requires a carefully balanced cocktail of software to get automated production right, and CPQ forms a vital element of the mix.
CPQ guides your customer towards their optimal product selection (Configure), calculates how much that selection will cost (Price), and generates a compelling quote (Quote). The product rules that govern your CPQ link the automated production processes on the factory floor with your sales reps, engineering teams, and, ultimately, your customers’ unique requirements.
Central to every CPQ implementation is the product configurator – a tool that automates the configuration and customization of engineer-to-order products. Product configurators are designed to make it easy for users to narrow down vast, complicated product catalogs into carefully optimized customer-specific selections, greatly simplifying the sales process.
CPQ product rules drive product configurators. They’re the little bits of logic that, when combined, determine how products are assembled during manufacturing. CPQ rules engines eliminate configuration mistakes and human error and ensure that every customized, engineer-to-order product is optimized from a technological (and financial) standpoint in line with your automated production setup.
Product configurators vary in complexity from simple, 2D configurators with Amazon-like filtering systems, right up to fully-interactive 3D configurators, like KBMax, with AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) capabilities. With a 3D product configurator, users build out products within an interactive three-dimensional scene. And as they resize sections, add or remove parts, upgrade features or change colors and dimensions, products evolve on their screen in real-time.
As the customer places their order through the product configurator, all the necessary information required for automated production is captured upfront. This information is then distributed to engineering and manufacturing in a language they intuitively understand. Detailed technical drawings can be sent to engineering for edit or sign off. Simultaneously, CNC data, cutting lists, and other manufacturing information can be fed directly into automated production infrastructures without the need for any human engineering input whatsoever.
Say goodbye to productivity-limiting silos between sales, operations, and engineering and bon voyage to back-of-a-napkin sketches, communication breakdowns, and never-ending back-and-forths between the customer, sales, and engineering. Among our KBMax clients leveraging automated production, rules-driven CPQ cuts sales cycles by an average of 38% and increases output by 35%.