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34 SMT007 MAGAZINE I JANUARY 2018 running machinery designed to replace human manual dexterity. Until quite recently, auto- mation has been rather dumb. Simple auto- mation was dominant where machines simply followed a set of sequential instructions, or, in the case of assembly robots, copied a series of movements. More evolved automation can apply alterations and corrections based on, for example, the processing of visual checks on SMT machines, which correct the posi- tion and orientation of materials picked up or positioned for placement. The challenge for the creation of the vast majority of automated processes was made very much easier by the notion of mass production, where once set up, the automation would simply repeat what it was doing in a very efficient way, with very high equipment utilization. Unfortunately, the heyday of repetitive high-volume manufactur- ing for most of us has passed. It seems ironic that automation has played the initial part in the downfall of mass-produc- tion itself. Adopting automation meant that the quantity of products made could be increased drastically over manual production lines. This meant that the market for such products expanded. Requirements in expanded markets meant that there needed to be different versions made, for example with different electricity or communication standards, including of course human language. The concept of variants was born. Once established, marketing teams got involved, using variants to find ways of target- ing against competitor's products, making lower cost versions, higher featured versions. Any company could then target increas- ingly well-defined niches of customer need with exactly the right cost-effective product. After marketing, came fashion. Technology has become fashionable, creating the need, for example, in personal devices such as cell- phones, to be available in many different sizes, colors and styles. Perhaps as an extreme exam- ple, but genuine nonetheless, a specific origi- nal design of mobile phone is now manufac- tured with thousands of individual variants, depending on feature level, resource level, wireless options, software options, language, service provider, colors, etc. Keeping track of which phone is which during manufacturing is an absolute nightmare. Most of the vari- ants look the same throughout most of the processes, but have different assembly combi- nations, including subtle differences in elec- tronic component placement positioning. The worst aspect of this is yet to come. Since there are so many variants, the cost of storage of semi-complete and completed products has increased in line with the number of variants being produced. In most cases, the business demand has been to avoid stock of products as far as possible. The number of days of stock throughout the distribution chain has typically shrunk from being many months, to a few days at most. For manufacturing operations that are remote from their markets, such as China, the reduction can only be achieved by air-freight rather than sea-freight, increasing distribution costs and environmental impact. Companies that manufacture close to their markets, typi- cally those remaining in the West, are pushed to be almost "make to order" so as to keep needless investment of stock to an absolute minimum. In-factory warehousing is included. The opportunity for manufacturing to smooth the effect of high product mix on the lines by creating stockpiles in the warehouse is rapidly running out. The reality now must be faced. Manufacturing must be capable of producing multiple configurations with complete control and without any loss of productivity. Those companies that can achieve this are surely the companies that will succeed, having reduced the extortionate operational overhead of mixed and low-volume production to an absolute minimum. This is the condition that Industry It seems ironic that automation has played the initial part in the downfall of mass-production itself.

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