Grand challenges for small batch production

Assembly Automation

ISSN: 0144-5154

Article publication date: 1 September 2000




Peters, B.A. (2000), "Grand challenges for small batch production", Assembly Automation, Vol. 20 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Grand challenges for small batch production

Grand challenges for small batch production

Brett A. Peters

Brett A. Peters is Associate Professor at the Department of Industrial Engineering, Texas A&M University, 3131 TAMUS, College Station, TX 77843-3131, USA. E-mail:

Keywords: Flexible manufacturing systems, Production, Just-in-time

Today's consumers are placing increasing demands on manufacturing companies. These consumers are increasingly requiring customized products. They still expect high quality, low price, and fast delivery, but are no longer willing to accept standard, off-the-shelf products. Manufacturers must be able to supply a high volume of quality, customized products at a reasonable price. This type of manufacturing challenge has been referred to as mass customization, and it is forcing many changes in the way manufacturing companies do business.

The changes necessary to compete in this market environment involve the design of the product, the manufacturing system, and the distribution activities. Many products are being designed in a modular fashion to allow the components to be "mixed-and-matched" to meet customers' specifications. These modular product designs allow the manufacture or assembly of the final product to be postponed as long as possible so that the products can be made-to-order for a particular customer. In other cases, a manufacturer may choose to follow a delayed product differentiation strategy. That is, a few common, standardized base products are created in a make-to-stock manufacturing setting. These products are then customized to meet a specific customer order. Often, this customization will be carried out in the warehouse or distribution center, e.g. by adding easily installed options or by applying customer-specific instructions and labeling. Thus, these distribution activities will include value-added transformation of the product as well as order fulfillment and delivery of the product.

Even with these changes, the increasing requirements also have a great effect on the manufacturing systems. The need for flexibility in these systems is increasing. This flexibility must span many areas to allow the systems to produce a variety of different products quickly and efficiently. New system designs aimed at increasing flexibility are being developed. These efforts must address the processing equipment, handling resources, and system configuration issues. The design must allow the system to be easily reconfigured as requirements change. In addition, the operational procedures used in the system must also not inhibit flexibility but should promote effective operation in changing, uncertain environments. Traditional approaches aimed at reducing setups, improving process control, decreasing batch sizes, and reducing inventory must be coupled with new technologies to improve the availability and timeliness of information, control the flow of material through the entire logistics network, and ensure that manufacturing activities are coordinated with the actions of all other parts of the enterprise.

The United States National Research Council (1998) recently published a book on Visionary Manufacturing Challenges for 2020. In it they outline six grand challenges. Two of them are particularly relevant to this issue of Assembly Automation focusing on small batch production.

Grand Challenge 1 is to achieve concurrency in all operations. Concurrent engineering efforts focused on simultaneous product and process design must continue. These efforts should continue to expand to include the manufacturing and assembly requirements. In addition, these efforts must broaden to address the complete set of planning, development, and implementation issues including aspects involving product support and end-of-life product recovery.

Grand Challenge 5 is to reconfigure manufacturing enterprises rapidly in response to changing needs and opportunities. Clearly, this ability is a major determining factor of the success of current and future manufacturing enterprises. Systems must be designed to be as flexible as possible and must be planned to allow them to be reconfigured as needed. This challenge should apply to all aspects of the enterprise including both the manufacturing and distribution activities.

This issue's focus on small batch production is particularly timely given the changes in the marketplace and the challenges facing manufacturing and assembly companies. Two of the research papers of this issue provide a glimpse at the current research being conducted to address these challenges. The paper "An automated system for product specification and design" provides a system for automating the product design process. The system helps ensure quality designs while reducing the design lead-time and shortening the time-to-market, by building upon concurrent engineering concepts. The paper "Standardised flexible automatic assembly - evaluating the Mark IV approach" presents a design concept for creating flexible assembly systems. This concept is built on the premise that the system should be easily expanded and reconfigured as the company's needs and capabilities change in respond to market conditions. The paper describes the concept and a prototype system that is being constructed.

These are exciting times for manufacturing companies. The marketplace is becoming increasingly demanding, and this trend will only continue as the use of the Internet for e-commerce continues to accelerate. Companies must have a clear strategy for competing in this marketplace in order to survive. As illustrated by the "grand challenges," the need for flexibility and reconfigurability will continue to increase in the future. Current research in flexible system design and operation is laying the foundation for these future manufacturing enterprises.


National Research Council (1998), Visionary Manufacturing Challenges for 2020, National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

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