Bernardo Mendez is senior product manager at Yaskawa Innovation Inc. Click image to enlargeby Bernardo Mendez 

Manufacturing is at a turning point. Is “distributed manufacturing” the way forward?


Disruption in manufacturing, caused by Industry 4.0, has introduced new market dynamics and technological breakthroughs, causing companies to rethink their manufacturing strategies. Because of increasing product individualization, shorter product life cycles, and various market demands, production inefficiencies continue to thrive amid an innovative landscape. To effectively manage the uptick in manufacturing complexity, more companies are turning to a promising approach known as distributed manufacturing.

A form of decentralized manufacturing, distributed manufacturing, upends the idea of traditional manufacturing, where companies utilize a single, centralized factory to assemble raw materials or components into a multitude of identical products that are shipped to distribution points. A decentralized approach maintains a network of regionally dispersed production facilities intertwined with workstations that are managed by empowered employees and coordinated by smart technologies. With a keen focus on production layout, decentralization dictates material flow, production scheduling and work distribution, allowing products to be manufactured and distributed closer to end consumers.

While centralized manufacturing has certain advantages over a decentralized approach, companies that utilize a distributed manufacturing system often experience greater flexibility
of manufacturing processes, which is key to lowering supply chain costs and to meeting increased consumer demands.

Automation advancements, like the implementation of collaborative robots (cobots) on the factory floor, further the argument for decentralized manufacturing, where human-robot collaboration (HRC) in multi-purpose manufacturing cells is the basis for future intelligent production. 

Human-robot collaboration, where a cobot shares a common workspace with a human operator to efficiently carry out a defined task, is quickly changing assembly operations. The most difficult, dirty and tedious tasks that were previously performed manually, are now being performed by cobots in an ergonomic and efficient way through the use of high performance sensors and advance control software. By combining this optimal degree of automation with the tremendous flexibility of humans in workstations, manufacturers can create a highly productive workforce.

While industrial robots can be a complex solution for many businesses, collaborative robots offer feasible solutions for technical and economic challenges, no matter the industry or size. Relatively lightweight and designed to operate safely in close proximity to people, without the need for a hard safety enclosure, cobots can be easily programmed.

This new generation of robots provides easy and safe automation for many applications, including assembly, packaging, palletizing, labelling, dispensing, machine tending, injection moulding, quality inspection, pick and place, and lab analysis and testing. The economic benefits derived from HRC can help companies achieve higher throughput, increased quality, greater yields and labour cost savings. Combining smart manufacturing methods with human-robotic process automation gives manufacturers the ability to create factories that are less prone to disruption, and capable of managing diverse products and demands.

However, the boundaries of automation are rigid, and the limits of what tasks should be done by a cobot and what should be accomplished by a human are in the process of being redefined.
New simulation algorithms are necessary to optimize work distribution inside workstations during human-robot collaboration, and newly introduced concepts for layout planning and production scheduling for a distributed manufacturing system need to be developed
and improved. 

Only then will human-robot collaboration in a distributed manufacturing system reach its full potential. SMT

Bernardo Mendez is senior product manager at Yaskawa Innovation Inc. 

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