With Greater Flexibility Comes Greater Resiliency

March 25, 2022 | 4 min read

Caroline Pan, CMO, Bright Machines

Conversations around “flexibility” have become more prominent in the last two years. People want flexibility in how, when, and where they work. They want it in how they purchase goods, live, and raise and educate their kids. Flexibility is about embracing innovation and alternative operating methods so our daily lives can become more efficient, more effective, and more satisfying overall. 

So, why has the concept of flexibility eluded the manufacturing sector for so many years? Why is it that the “making” of products has resisted this change, even while the selling, purchasing, and delivery of those same products have evolved dramatically?

We’re here to change that paradigm. Through integrated software and data-backed insights, Bright Machines Microfactories add an extra layer of flexibility into operations historically viewed as rigid and repetitive. We allow customers to shift from traditional automation and manual labor to intelligent automation quickly and efficiently, so they can focus on what they do best… building great products. 

First, A Look Back 

Initiatives to drive greater flexibility into manufacturing operations have existed for decades. Think of the manufacturers who cross-trained human workers so that people weren’t constrained to a specific line or assembly task and could be repurposed when needed. Or companies who designed a common product platform or standard chassis so that multiple variations of a product could be made within a single plant. And others who worked to distribute their production across multiple facilities, so as not to create a single point of failure if a factory went down.  

Yet, with the bulk of product manufacturing still outsourced to Asia, problems can arise.  Producing and assembling products overseas can lead to unexpected shipping delays. There is a ceiling on how fast a human can work or how many different assembly steps they can do accurately or effectively at one given time. Even those who have decided to actively bring manufacturing back to the U.S. or Europe face the issue of higher labor costs and labor shortages.  

That is why so many companies are turning to automation. In most cases, it is the only way to stay “cost neutral” when reshoring. But there’s a catch – traditional automation was designed not for flexibility but throughput and repeatability. That means it is a huge boon to productivity in situations with consistently stable, high volume/low mix production. But what happens when demand changes? Or when the specific part for that new model is no longer available? The expected payback for the investment you made in automation will now require a series of expensive engineering change orders (ECOs) to adapt to the new conditions.

The onset of the pandemic brought all of these questions and limitations to the forefront as manufacturers were left scrambling to adjust to the highly disruptive chain reaction that we are still experiencing today. The last two years have been a clear wake-up call for the industry, further accelerating the desire for a better way to make the products we need, when and where we want them. That’s where Bright Machines steps in. 

A New Standard for Flexibility 

Flexible automation offers manufacturers a more resilient path forward. Imagine an assembly line that marries the productivity benefits of traditional “spot” automation with human flexibility and dexterity. One that can be programmed to accommodate different instruction tasks that can be changed on the fly; one that can build multiple SKUs on the same line; one that is modular, reconfigurable, and reusable over time. Thanks to impressive advancements in machine learning, computer vision, and robotics, we’ve made this possible. 

According to Eric Cowan, VP of Advanced Manufacturing for Stanley Black and Decker, implementing flexible automation solutions makes good financial sense too. “They make it cheaper, in the long run, to manufacture because I can take these [Bright Robotic Cells] and reconfigure them two years, three years down the line. Or, if I need to, say, improve my cycle time, I can simply augment my line by adding additional cells. If in the next generation [of a tool] we add 50% more screws, I can either slow everything down, or I can drop in one more flexible cell, and now my cycle time’s the same.”

In late 2021, Stanley Black & Decker deployed their first Bright Machines Microfactory line at their flagship Carolinas Manufacturing Operations site in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Its one of the most complex and comprehensive lines we have built to date, with over a dozen assembly stations tackling everything from screwing, soldering, gluing, testing, and computer vision-based inspection. And we are deploying four more of these microfactory lines this year, to enable even greater capacity and flexibility to produce the products their end customers need.

Flexibility can look different for everyone but having the capabilities to bend and adapt to shifting demands and an unpredictable macro environment will always provide a competitive edge – and that’s precisely what Bright Machines enables. 

Learn more about additional customer deployments here

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

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