Next-Gen Automation Increases Capacity, Reduces Cost of Household-Appliance Manufacturing

June 22, 2020 | 5 min read

Stevan Dobrasevic, Director of Product Marketing, Bright Machines

Today, more than ever, manufacturers of household appliances are looking for ways to reduce per-unit production costs without sacrificing the ability to scale when growth opportunities present themselves. And that opportunity, despite or perhaps even fanned by COVID-19, looks promising, with Allied Market Research projecting global demand for home appliances growing more than 25% to a cool $750 billion by 2025.

With demand for home appliances rising, fueled in part by smart technologies – think of “connected” refrigerators, ovens and washer/dryers – it’s time for manufacturers of these important home staples to get smart, too, in their production processes.

Manufacturers today can choose among three key options to make their assembly lines and production processes “opportunity ready,” but only one of these options holds the key to keeping costs in check.

Three Options, One Answer: Next-Generation Automation

Take the example of a coffee-maker. One common sub-assembly task in its production is building the “showerhead,” the device through which hot water is poured out over ground coffee beans to brew a cup or pot of coffee. Simple, right? But showerhead assembly is actually more complicated than it sounds, involving the proper alignment of key components and precision-screwing.

A plant manager today may choose to address this sub-assembly process with human operators. The merits of this choice are many. First, it’s easy and fast to get your assembly line up and running. You simply train up your staff and put them to work. Second, people are flexible. If something changes in the showerhead design, for example the type or position of a particular screw changes, human operators can easily adapt to the situation with minimal re-training.

The downside of human operators, however, is they make mistakes. One client testified to a 40 percent defect rate when using human operators for this sensitive sub-assembly work. Another risk and concern here is production output and its reliability. People get sick or hurt. A bad injury can shut down a plant temporarily. And employees depart, sometimes without notice, for other jobs, leaving vacated positions that can affect production output.

Dependence on human operators also makes it difficult to scale. If product demand grows suddenly, and you need to add 50 percent capacity, can you really hire up that quickly? The manufacturer battling the 40 percent defect rate also lived the scalability problem. Running three 8-hour shifts with a five person crew, the company could churn out 720,000 showerhead units per year.

But demand had risen to 1 million.

To meet growing demand, a plant manager could consider custom, or first-generation automation. These robotic solutions make sense when annual units produced run into the half-millions or millions and expected product runs are measured in years, without change. Comprised of custom hardware components and custom software developed for assembling a specific product in a specific scenario with a specific capacity, this breed of automation solution checks the boxes of producing high quality products at a predictable output.

This approach would be perfect for showerhead assembly, but for the long deployment time. Such custom automation solutions typically take 12-18 months to implement. Unfortunately, they are also inflexible and don’t scale. That screw change we mentioned earlier? A first-generation automation solution won’t likely be able to absorb that change. And if it has been designed to produce 500,000 units per year, increasing capacity by 50% won’t be managed easily.

Fortunately, automation has gotten much smarter and easier to deploy. Next-generation automation is not custom built – instead it leverages modular automation hardware building blocks, which are in turn configured by software. This one-two punch enables manufacturers to check all their production requirements quickly and easily.

With next-generation automation, assembly lines can be automated in less than six months, meaning time-to-benefit shrinks. And if a part or alignment angle changes along the way, the software assembly recipe can be quickly modified with the push of a button to accommodate the change. Need more capacity? Simply add more robotic cells.

This new breed of smart, flexible, and scalable automation is embodied by the Bright Machines Microfactory, software-defined manufacturing featuring robotic cells with configurable, end-of-arm tools delivering factory-ready skills quickly, accurately, and economically. The experience of our coffee-maker client bears this out.

Prior to working with Bright Machines to develop a 3-robotic-cell assembly line for showerhead assembly, this manufacturer fielded three shifts of 5 human operators. The before and after cost, quality, and scalability results show considerable improvement :

  • Capacity. Five human operators could produce 120 showerhead units per hour over an 8-hour shift, totaling 960 units per shift. With the Bright Machines Microfactory, the company upped production to 180 units per hour, 50% more, or 1,440 per shift. This increase enabled the manufacturer to meet a key goal, satisfying annual production demand without having to rely on running three shifts.
  • Quality. Remember the 40 percent defect rate associated with the five human operators? With next-generation automation, defects cratered to 2 percent, dramatically increasing the yield of good units.
  • Cost. When five human operators assembled showerheads, the cost was a constant $0.83 per unit across shifts. But with the Bright Machines Microfactory, per unit production costs plummeted to $0.25 for one shift, $0.13 for two shifts, and $0.08 over three shifts – a 90 percent cost reduction!

That All Sounds Great, But How Do I Pay For It?

While the business case for next-generation automation is clear – reduced cost, increased capacity, yield and flexibility – overcoming the upfront investment hurdle to obtaining these benefits has been less so.

Until now.

COVID-19 has made it more difficult and dangerous for manufacturers to predict demand. As a result, capital-investment budgets are being squeezed or closely guarded. That’s why we offer our Bright Machines automation solutions “as a service,” providing manufacturers a pay-as-you-produce model that eliminates large upfront capital costs, shifting cost from CAPEX to OPEX. As an added bonus, Bright Machines has created a factory resiliency fund, which helps manufacturers further defer their first payment to three months after deployment, meaning no payments necessary until the system is in production.

Put another way, many manufacturers can deploy next-generation automation now in 2020 and not make any payments until 2021.

To learn more about our capabilities in building the backbone of AI, visit Bright Machines.

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