Managing material flow

Features - Cover Story

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies can speed production and ensure the right material shows up at the right place at the right time.

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April 7, 2021

Managers can track material flow, when to order new parts, and problems in assembly using dashboards generated from handling data.

Manufacturing is going through a revolution not seen since the 1970s. The primary driver is consumer demand for personalized service, creating a transition in the industry from mass production to mass customization. For automotive manufacturers, this means producing batch-of-one vehicles with variations specific to a customer at the same or better costs and quality achieved with large-batch scheduling.

Consumer demand that drives more variation and faster production cycles creates new complexities for automotive manufacturing. Adding to this challenge, auto manufacturers are also responding to geopolitical changes that force reconsideration to their offshoring strategies. They’re also rebuilding their technology base for full electrification and are investing in unprecedented artificial intelligence (AI) for new autonomous functions.

Traditional commercial dealer networks’ delivery and service models are challenged with direct-to-customer methods. The emergence of vehicle-as-a-service (VaaS) and the concept of monetizing the ride environment has resulted in radical new paradigms and design considerations. These additional factors are also impacting the industry and how auto manufacturing will be re-imagined.

So, how can automotive manufacturers meet the increasingly difficult complexity in their operations? It’s clear that traditional paper-based, inflexible, and labor-intensive systems of the ’70s can no longer keep up. A key part of the solution is to move from just-in-time (JIT) delivery to just-in-sequence (JIS) inventory management, enabling all parts to arrive in concert at the right place and right time to build a batch-of-one vehicle. This keeps inventory on the plant floor low and simplifies the assembly process.

Increased demand for customization means modern material handling needs to be more than just lean, it must also be flexible. With JIS manufacturing, different product models can be produced efficiently on the same assembly line with less handling and greater accuracy.

The biggest benefit of JIS is the potential to support increased customer demand for customization. This process leads to fewer errors and faster assembly so manufacturers can reduce downtime, produce higher volumes, and satisfy more customers.

All photos from Panasonic Corp.

Industrial Internet of Things

Maximizing the shift to mass customization and JIS manufacturing requires smart material flow management delivered through a combination of smart devices and smart humans. This new process for material flow management is made possible by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Incorporating IIoT and smart material flow management allows automotive manufacturers to:

  • Reduce spend. Smart devices, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, allow manufacturers to reduce costs in materials and labor, the two largest spends in manufacturing.
  • Increase reliability. Getting the right parts to the right place at the right time can help manufacturers hit schedules and deliver products to consumers when expected. IIoT offers visibility into the entire factory floor, increasing reliability throughout the full manufacturing process.
  • Increase flexibility. Manufacturers still want the same quality, reliability, and reduced spend that were the hallmarks of traditional rigid manufacturing processes; however, the workflow must be more flexible by being easy to reconfigure and change dynamically.
  • Full traceability. Manufacturers want to know where their product was built, by whom, on what day, and the conditions. This information is critical for quality review or responding to customers’ questions. IIoT enables manufacturers to create those records digitally, replacing paper processes that are un-trackable and lack the traceability needed today.
  • Enhance visibility. With IIoT, manufacturers can increase visibility into the process for suppliers and customers. As consumers, we’re used to an e-commerce world and seeing what’s happening with an order at any given moment. A consumer placing an order from a retail website expects to see when an order has been picked, shipped, and will be delivered. That visibility into the process is coming in all aspects of manufacturing. Customers and suppliers are increasingly asking manufacturers to let them inside the black box, which isn’t possible with existing manual paper systems.
  • Digitally integrate. The Five Ms of manufacturing refer to materials, manpower, machine, methods, and money. By handling material flow with IIoT, the material can communicate directly with the manpower, machines, and is tied directly into the method and the money. Amazon has its customer interface and billing tied directly to its operations – all five Ms are fully integrated. Digitizing these links is crucial for manufacturers trying to be flexible to meet demand who frequently reconfigure their systems.
  • Support analytics/continuous improvement. AI and analytics engines have grown tremendously throughout the last few years. Manufacturers are trying to use these modern tools to eliminate all costs from their processes, improve quality, and produce greater insights into their manufacturing operations. Using IIoT for material flow helps manufacturers gather detailed data that can be used for analytics engines to analyze processes and AI improvements to achieve greater efficiencies.

Operations

Manufacturers can select different bin screen sizes based on how much information they need to share with operators.

One of the largest risks when running JIS is a breakdown in the sequence. If one part is out of order or needs to be replaced because of a defect, the entire process is in jeopardy. Today, we can solve this challenge with runners and radios, dedicating material supervisors to patrol the process and intervene when an exception is declared.

A more efficient solution is an intelligent and visual pick-and-replenishment process that is more accurate initially and enables automated correction.

For example, the Panasonic Logiscend System is an IIoT material flow management solution that combines the power of wireless, e-Paper Panasonic View tags with advanced software so complex manufacturing operations can get the right parts to the right place at the right time. It enables a hands-free, paperless process to improve JIS pick-and-kitting speed and accuracy, as well as enhance JIS material flow with a wireless, paperless, IIoT system for parts replenishment. When a problem occurs, a wireless, visual cue is immediately given to get the sequence back on track.

The Logiscend system can further drive digital transformation by integrating all material functions into one suite of related workflows. There’s powerful synergy linking the pick, replenishment, asset, and container tracking along with delivering dynamic digital work instructions to the operator. Material is the one factor that goes through the entire manufacturing process. If a manufacturer focuses on optimizing material flow, it inevitably optimizes everything that touches it.

Meeting demand

While consumer demand for product customization and transparency into the production process continues to grow, supply chains will continue to be more integrated into the process. For automotive manufacturers, JIS manufacturing built on IIoT provides an efficient, effective means of manufacturing batch-of-one vehicles and enabling full visibility. Using IIoT for material flow is the key to enabling a solid foundation for next-generation manufacturing to achieve the objectives that customers and suppliers expect.

Panasonic Corp. https://logiscend.panasonic.com

About the author: Ed Nabrosky is director sales and strategy at Panasonic. He can be reached at iiot.sales@us.panasonic.com.