The next generation of manufacturing

The next generation of manufacturing

  • Industry Type: Industrial Manufacturing
  • Author: Steve Christie
  • Service Area: Advice
  • Date: 12 May 2011

Australia’s market place is very competitive. Manufacturers need to be flexible to adapt to customer demands and reduce operating, inventory and stock holding costs. The process and flow within a facility should have the ability to change and can no longer follow traditional linear designs, with machines permanently configured in a row. With a tight employment market driving focus on attracting and retaining workers, next generation facilities need to be dynamic and flexible to allow for rapid process change and a people friendly environment.

The experience of the human worker in manufacturing has largely been ignored to date. Technology now has the ability to enhance the work environment to levels never before achievable. Traditional production lines, such as a bottling line, tended to be a long progression of machines, each performing the next process in the manufacture of the article—from de-palletising to palletising. The design was all about the best transport of the bottle between steps. These conveyors split the work area and often made access very difficult. The operators were placed in amongst the machines as required by the machines. Often the equipment was grouped by function—all palletisers together—ensuring the operator was kept busy. This approach created mind-numbing work conditions, with operators isolated by the constraints of the equipment. 


New generation material handling frees up the constraints of the work environment and allows designers to build production lines in a more operator-friendly way. Two of the   technologies enabling this change are Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) and the advances in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), combined with manufacturing based software.  

An AGV is an intelligent vehicle that can reliably move and perform specific tasks without an operator, when space is at a premium and flexibility is critical. AGV's are used in nearly every industry and manufacturing applications include: raw material handling; work in progress movement; finished product handling; trailer loading; removal of scraps and supply of packaging. In the food industry in particular, AGVs handle the loading of food and trays in a sterile environment and a variety of wrapping and packaging. The vehicles can carry, tow and attach. They can be guided by wire, magnet, gyroscope or for the greatest precision and flexibility—laser. Laser guided systems are easy to install using reflective targets fitted around the working area, providing the vehicles with a reference grid for orientation and steering. There are no fixed structures on the plant floor and changes can be made to the layout of the process bay or process, without modifying the site. The vehicles can adjust to accept new routes and orders, they communicate to ensure product is moving smoothly and can determine the best route to complete the mission, taking into account the other vehicles and avoiding collisions.  Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) uses a tag for the purpose of identification and tracking using radio waves. RFID allows for reliable tracking of product outside of the traditional production line approach. AGVs allow the sequence of production to be broken and even random, with the RFID tracking where the product is. 


 In a competitive environment, the best result is obtained when each component of the group does what is best for him/herself and for the group. 
John Nash (Bluefield, USA, 1928 Nobel Economy Prize in 1994)

Process design can now be all about the operators and can encourage a team approach. The need for straight lines is gone as the transport legs can be achieved with AGVs and can be anywhere in the process. If we consider the bottling line again, the functions could be organised in a tight cluster, so that the operators are all able to communicate and interact together as a group with a common goal. To enable this close working environment for the production team, the incoming raw materials and finished goods may end up in illogical positions from a traditional factory design view. AGV’s can be used to recover the overall factory efficiency, as they can transport to and from anywhere. A traditional focus on line design can now swing to a futuristic focus on team design. With the flexibility automated logistics allows, any arrangement of process clusters can be integrated.

The introduction of AGV's is not just about replacing forklifts, but a paradigm shift to designing manufacturing facilities for optimal productivity of both the people and the process.

No longer do companies only focus on the form, but can instead consider the substance. A team approach, retaining and developing knowledge, skills and capabilities is a competitive advantage that can now be more easily embraced in manufacturing. Rather than workers being part of a function, logistics flexibility means the people can be organised optimally to be part of a whole process. It allows agile workers to develop multiple skills and the ability to switch easily from one kind of task to another.  They are more focused on the full chain (end-to-end responsibility) and work as part of a team. Collaboration and motivation is increased by the team achieving an end product. There is less chance workers will make suboptimal choices that effect the overall process effectiveness, efficiency and responsiveness. This design allows outside-in thinking, making it easier for your people to keep a customer focus and driving innovation to fuel the company’s future success. 


Flexible processes and flexible workers create flexible plants. Reacting to customers’ demands, being agile for new scenarios and developing production designs around the needs of the operators is a more complex design than traditional production line design.  Flexibility is the next generation of manufacturing and is fast becoming a necessary survival tool for local manufacturers.

Organising a complex project, capable of interacting with pre-existing systems and infrastructures, requires considerable engineering know-how in various fields. Conduct the necessary research and seek expert advice to assist you in selecting appropriate automation for your process and more importantly, the lifeblood of your organisation—your people.   


About the author
Steve Christie is the Director of Process Engineering at Wiley and can be contacted on
1300 385 988 or email

This article was published in Food & Drink Business Magazine.

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