Could microfactories help manufacturers adapt to digital transformation?
The manufacturing industry is at the forefront of digital transformation. But still most manufacturers lack the technologies and skills required to drive innovation. Taking advantage of new manufacturing technologies, microfactories are proved to be effective as these are small, highly automated factories. A microfactory doesn’t require more space as well as a large labor force and can use less energy and materials. It also stimulates the miniaturization of production equipment and systems consistent with the product dimension, reducing the size of the factory, which, in turn, needs less capital, and lowers operating expenses.
The concept of microfactory is not new as it was first proposed in 1990 by the Mechanical Engineer Laboratory (MEL) of Japan. The laboratory later worked on a project to downsize machine tools and manufacturing systems for almost a decade and developed a microlathe, a machine tool used for the complex shaping of metal and other solid materials, smaller than a human palm in 1996. In today’s manufacturing scenario, manufacturers are spending much on a unique set of automation and other digital technologies. Despite this, they are falling behind making an effective shift to digital transformation.
In this regard, the microfactory business model is developed on digital technologies and faster processing, digital printing and computerized cutting make it more agile. Leveraging automation, augmented reality software, laser cutting, online workflows, and other novel innovations enable manufacturers to change the way they work. With the help of these fresh approaches, manufacturers can only produce products after they are sold and get the ability to turnaround products more quickly to meet demand.
Traditional Manufacturing Model vs. Microfactory
Traditionally, manufacturers reduce costs by building a large factory to meet economies of scale and mass production. However, they often require an extensive and costly distribution network to make products available to customers. In contrast, the concept of microfactory alters the conventional way of manufacturing by setting up multiple small, high-tech manufacturing units, within close proximity to customers, which can function as retail outlets providing a customized product.
With high-mix, low-volume business at a low cost and high ROI, the microfactory delivers substantial advantages to manufacturers. Those include a greater opportunity for innovation; lower labor costs owing to AI and automation; improved engagement and a boost in morale for highly skilled engineers working in an agile environment; an enhanced flow of digital information across multiple locations and increased ability to tailor products at low cost on a moment-to-moment basis, among others.
Moreover, manufacturers in the traditional manufacturing model manufacture products first in large quantities and then pushed to the market through a diverse range of distribution channels. However, microfactory eases these multiple processes and enables manufacturers to build products only after getting confirmed orders from the customer, thereby generating pull from the market.