Achieving Mass Customization with Help from Robotics

For years now, manufacturers have been using robotics to revolutionize production. The implementation approaches, however, vary by use case.

SAP has launched its new thought leadership journal Horizons by SAP, which brings together global tech leaders from various companies to share their perspective on the future of IT. In the coming weeks, one article from the journal will appear on the SAP News Center per week. Here, Andreas Bauer, software architect of the Automotive Division at Kuka AG, explains how to drive efficiency and optimize manufacturing processes by the use of robotics.

Some manufacturers use robotics to drive efficiency. Think of a straightforward assembly line, as inherited from Henry Ford. Large, stationary robotic units are positioned “behind the fence” and away from humans – allowing the robots to do their thing without causing harm or injury to workers. These robots move fast and don’t get fatigued. This is where the efficiencies are gained.

Yet efficiency isn’t the only advantage. As manufacturing execution systems (MESs) become more advanced, manufacturers are considering how robotics can be added to planning and shop-floor operations. For example, robotics can help some enterprises more flexibly program customizations into the assembly process – so this car gets a sunroof, and that one gets the sports trim. This flexibility allows manufacturers to accommodate customer preferences with greater ease.

Shifting from Assembly Lines to Production Cells

While assembly lines are still common, today’s state of the art for robotics is shifting from large, stationary devices to flexible machines with self-learning capabilities that help optimize processes over time. This move is helping to fuel a much higher degree of modularization in production.

Modular production means agile production – the kind capable of serving low-volume, flexible lots and even the “lot size of one” while still maintaining profitability. The desire or agile production has led to the rise of production cells.

These stationary groups of equipment include advanced robotic devices that can be used to manufacture a wide

and changing variety of products. And as customer needs evolve, these cells can reassemble themselves as needed to produce different assemblies or finished goods.

Mobile robotic units – also known as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) – can be used to fetch and deliver the parts and materials needed for each cell to complete its assembly and manufacturing tasks. They can also carry required parts and tools needed in each cell, increasing overall flexibility.

Using a navigation algorithm, the AGVs navigate to the individual manufacturing cells. Once the robot arrives in the cell, it picks up the work piece or part. A second robot in the cell holds the other part, locking the pieces together to form an assembly. A third robot welds the pieces together. In addition, some mobile robots are enhanced by a static production robot. The mobile robot moves around from cell to cell, and the static robot executes its work task wherever needed.

Helping the mobile robots move throughout the factory to production cells are onboard sensors that scan their surroundings and let the navigation system determine the location of the AGV fleet with respect to shop-floor schematics. Coordination between MESs and robots can facilitate and optimize these tasks – therefore optimizing overall production significantly.

Such flexible production requires real-time coordination of demand, schedules, and all robots throughout the work processes. The enabling software, which is based on artificial intelligence technologies, keeps track of and determines where the moving AGVs are located and which component or tool the AGV needs to deliver to the robot. The robots can quickly prepare the parts so that assemblies or other work tasks are completed efficiently.

More flexible, matrix-like production can become a decisive competitive advantage for manufacturers. Compared with rigidly linked production concepts, robotics-enabled manufacturing improves flexibility and versatility while optimizing shop-floor space. In the future, this technology may even lead to modular and mobile factories.

Never let your preconceived notions about how robotics and modularization can improve manufacturing hold you back from making the most of all the possibilities.

Balancing Modularity and Standardization

It is important to remember that not all manufacturing requires the same robotics support. An auto manufacturer follows different processes than a manufacturer of semiconductors. Thus, for robots to be more broadly adopted, they need to be made in a domain-agnostic way.

Robot functionality, in a sense, needs to be modularized. This requires a certain amount of standardization across use cases. Basic equipment – such as motion sensors, grippers, joints, voice recognition systems, and welding cells – can be used across models and quickly adapted to a wide range of requirements and unique use cases.

Because robots are used as part of complex processes – manufacturing and otherwise – this notion of standardization needs to extend to back-end business and operational systems as well. One area ripe for progress is the technological integration of robots into MESs. By creating robotics that can flexibly adapt to specific use cases and still interoperate with other applications, companies could improve the networking and interdependency among these technologies.

Now Available: Horizons by SAP

Horizons by SAP is a future-focused IT journal. Thought leaders from the global tech ecosystem share their thinking about how new technologies and major business trends will impact our customers’ landscapes in the fast-arriving future. The first issue, available at, revolves around the implications and opportunities of modular IT.

Achieving Mass Customization

While progress in standardization is still needed, robots are already being used to make personalization feasible in terms of cost, timely delivery, operational logistics, and other key metrics. As mentioned, manufacturers can use robots to increase customization, even with assembly-line production models. The production cell approach, however, is leading the way forward in terms of increasing flexibility and responsiveness to customer demand.

Many companies today are competing in the arena of customer experience. The product created by manufacturers is an integral part of that experience. And the ability to personalize the product to unique customer expectations and requests can make all the difference.

The production cell approach maximizes customization flexibility. With robots and humans working together, organizations can orchestrate unique production runs. The result is sometimes called “mass customization” – or the ability to deliver what customers want with short lead times and optimal price points that drive both sales and profitability. Automakers, for example, can accommodate nearly any mix of options – rather than producing high volumes of cars in just the three or four product lines offered today.

Consumer electronics companies can meet requirements for storage capacity or screen size without producing large lots ahead of time and hoping to sell what’s produced. Shoemakers can open their design process to consumers and then deliver precisely what the customer has created.

This kind of mass customization is already happening today with robotics and modular production techniques. Moving forward, improvements in robotics will make it easier for manufacturers to bring their customers more intimately into the product experience – from design to production. By using modular robotics technologies to increase personalization, manufacturers can increase customer engagement and increase loyalty over time.

Andreas Bauer is a software architect at Kuka.