Smart Automation: How Manufacturers Strike The Right Chord With Each Customer

Richard Howells

Part 7 of the “Digital Supply Chain of One” series

The phrase “personalized product” is music to customers’ ears.

Today’s buyers aren’t interested in mass-produced goods created by machines. They want unique items that express who they are. And they want to connect with those products on an emotional level.

This presents challenges to manufacturers. To stay competitive, companies need to add value to their customers’ lives by delivering the artistry of hand-crafted goods – and they must be able to do it quickly, cost-efficiently, and on a large scale.

If I’m buying a guitar, for instance, I may want it built with Honduran mahogany wood, special inlay decals on the fretboard, and a customized pickguard emblazoned with my name. (Father’s Day is coming up, if anybody’s reading this.)

How can a manufacturer make this happen fast and at a reasonable price? Smart automation.

Orchestrating production processes for the lot size of one

Automation is everywhere – and for good reason. Responding to customers quickly and cost-efficiently requires the smart automation and digitalization of processes, equipment, and even people.

Many organizations are already doing this. They’re using driverless forklifts to pick and move goods around the warehouse, autonomous vehicles to transport packages, and drones for last-mile delivery.

By leveraging smart automation to reimagine processes, manufacturers can better deliver on the promise of individualized goods.

Smart automation enables companies to replace mass production with mass customization. It allows businesses to upgrade from continuous production lines to flexible manufacturing cells that automatically operate or adjust based on configurations to the next item in production.

Companies could conceivably employ agile manufacturing processes to produce one customized good after another – guitars, for instance – without ever duplicating a single object.

Innovating manufacturing equipment with cutting-edge technology

For manufacturers to automate operations and deliver the lot size of one, they need to embrace four key technologies:

  1. Internet of Things (IoT): Analyzing data captured by IoT sensors affixed to manufacturing equipment helps companies gain real-time visibility into how machines operate. If there’s a problem, a manufacturer can detect it immediately. And by sharing data with partners in a networked system, maintenance providers can spot an issue the moment it arises and quickly send a crew to fix the faulty machine. This will help avoid unnecessary downtime so the company can continue cranking out individualized six-strings that customers love.
  1. 3D printing: Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing removes the complexity from mass customization. It allows manufacturers to eliminate design constraints and generate personalized products on demand. Whether a customer wants a minor modification, such as a custom pickguard, or to completely transform their instrument by shaping the guitar’s body like an elephant, 3D printing can help make it happen.
  1. Robotics: Introducing robotics into manufacturing processes is a game changer. They’re the great enabler – what music industry executives would call the “it” factor for a band. They give companies the opportunity to skip previously required manufacturing steps. People are no longer needed to review drawings or understand designs before production. With the push of a button, robots simply create – and the result is a perfect guitar that meets the customer’s specifications.
  1. Machine learning: Data doesn’t just tell companies what’s happening today. It can tell them what may happen tomorrow. Machine learning allows businesses to leverage historical data to predict and prevent potential system failures. It also identifies patterns in customer demands so organizations can better anticipate needs. If more and more buyers request single-coil pickups, for instance, the guitar manufacturer can begin producing them proactively. This predictive capability will push businesses to become more intelligent and increase long-term efficiency.

These revolutionary tools make it possible for manufacturers to deliver the artistry of customized products – without extending cycle times, delaying shipments, or raising costs.

Automating supply chain staff

Many manufacturers understand the importance of automating processes and equipment to deliver the lot size of one, but they often neglect one simple fact: It’s equally vital to automate employees.

The digital supply chain requires that workers – no matter their roles and responsibilities – have access to the insight they need to perform at their best.

With real-time data at the point of work, staff can boost efficiency and productivity. They can leverage interactive, 3D data through mobile or wearable devices, such as tablets or smart glasses, to visualize how to adhere special inlay decals to a fretboard or install gold tuning pegs on a buyer’s customized guitar.

Providing real-time data is the key to leveraging technology to automate and augment supply chain staff. With the right information at the right time, employees can accelerate work, improve decision making, increase agility and responsiveness, and decrease cycle times – just like the most powerful machines in a shop.

Getting in tune with customers

The lot size of one is nothing new. For years, customers longed for personalized products – and manufacturers strived to deliver them the best they could. But manufacturing the lot size of one remained a complex and costly endeavor.

Today, emerging technologies can empower manufacturers to automate people, processes, and equipment, making it faster, easier, and more cost-efficient than ever to create the individualized products buyers desire.

With smart automation, companies can finally get in tune with their customers.

Download this IDC Infobrief to learn more about predictive business and the digital supply chain of one.

About Richard Howells

Richard Howells is a Vice President at SAP responsible for the positioning, messaging, AR , PR and go-to market activities for the SAP Supply Chain solutions.