How to make the most flexible assembly line

Until recently, Mr. Ford's assembly line had undergone little change since its invention, but the truth is that consumer habits have given line assembly a major turn lately.

What changes are we talking about?

- Greater customization of the product. Just look at the beverage cans with the name of the potential consumer.

- Reduction in the time to market of the product. Consumers demand to have the product as soon as possible.

- Adaptability or flexibility due to market variations; that is "the strongest animal does not survive, but the one that best adapts." A quick example from the automotive sector: when the car model has been in production for 3 years, the market demands greater connectivity with the cell phone.

How has the assembly line adapted to the three previous points? What technologies have been applied?

1. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). The contribution of the AGVs is relevant:

a) They allow the line not to be a fixed obstacle in the workshop. In addition, the potential of taking advantage of spaces is enormous.

b) Line modifications can be done in an agile way: adding and removing stations quickly, as well as allowing the route of the line to be easily modified.

A quick example of this technology can be seen in the following excavator assembly video from the American Red Viking:

2. The assembly kits. An assembly kit is just that: “a kit”. That is, several parts for the assembly of a product. The kits allow:

a) To reduce the stock next to the assembly line. Therefore, when necessary it is easier to make a modification to the line. In addition, there are no longer two warehouses (one next to the line and one further away) and therefore the cost is reduced.

b) A greater customization of the assembled product. Each kit can have different parts depending on the product model to be assembled. Since space next to the line is limited, customizations until now were limited by the space available for parts next to the line.

As can be seen in the following video, the French PSA Peugeot Citroën widely use the assembly with kits that allows them greater flexibility and customization:

3. Sensors + Big data. They respectively allow the collection of a large amount of data from the production process and the conversion of these data into useful information. In this way:

a) Failures are diagnosed and corrected on the assembly line.

b) What is not measured, cannot be improved: the vast amount of information allow process improvements that would otherwise be impossible. The automotive sector is at the forefront in collecting data and converting them into useful information.

Here is the case of BMW:

What is striking about these three metioned points (AGVs, Kits, Sensors + Big Data) is that the only one that can be considered up-to-date is Big Data. Both the AGVs and the Kits as well as sensors are by no means new, although it is true that they have been extensively developed in the last 10 years.