How better configurability can future-proof your assembly line.

Are you as excited about machine configurability as the folks at this engineering blog are? If you knew the role configurability had to play in the wave of mass customization that has come to define the past few decades, you’d be excited too.

Thanks to configurability being adopted as a core concept in manufacturing, the price gap between custom and standard items has considerably narrowed or even disappeared completely. A product that would have taken weeks or months to fabricate 10 years ago may only take a couple of days or hours today. And it would cost a lot less too.

A Brief History of Configurability

The concept of “configurability” isn’t new. A look at the word through Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that it was first attested in 1916, during the middle of the First World War, with slight peaks during different subsequent periods of industrialization. Even in the days of Henry Ford, there was already a recognition of the advantages of being able to configure factories and assembly lines to produce different products.

However, where the use of the word “configurability” really started to climb was in the late 1960s, which coincides with the rise of Japan as a manufacturing powerhouse.

This rise is significant for several reasons. Before the 1960s, configurability was not widely adopted in factories largely due to cultural inertia. As Japanese manufacturers were looking for ways to compete against Western companies which were dominant before that time, they attempted to improve product quality and reduce costs simultaneously by adopting what would come to be known as “lean manufacturing.” From lean manufacturing, we can trace a line to the modern reconfigurable manufacturing systems.

The processes adopted by many Japanese firms during that period often included elements of configurability as we know it today. This emphasis on being able to quickly switch out different parts of a production stream allowed them to quickly pivot from one product to another. This meant a faster innovation cycle and, almost as important, more chances to put out a hit product. Lean manufacturing concepts were soon adopted by businesses all over the world.

The triumph of lean manufacturing meant factory configurability became more widely appreciated. It’s now recognized as a way to allow the continuous improvement products while extending the lifespan of the factory and make it more resilient to obsolescence. Configurable assembly lines were also recognized as a way to boost overall efficiency and quickly meet customer demands.

Thanks to improvements in configurable components, the concept of “mass manufacturing” has changed significantly since the early 20th Century. No longer is it all about producing large numbers of identical goods as quickly as possible. Neither is it just about making what a wider customer base wants. Configurable components have advanced to the point that manufacturers are not just able to think about the basic needs of a market but what individuals want as well.

Configurability Has Made Conventional Mass-Manufacturing Obsolete

Modern quality control methods allow mass-manufacturing processes to produce goods of exceptional quality and consistency. However, the very limitations of mass-manufacturing as a concept means that only a small portion of customers will find the products perfect for their specific needs. In simpler terms, mass manufacturing tends to create products that are “good enough” for most people but perfect for almost no one.

The reason for this comes down to simple economics. In a conventional assembly line, changing just one product parameter can be an expensive endeavor. This is because tools and components in conventional assembly lines are normally custom-made. Incorporating several custom components into a working system may sometimes take weeks or months. And this is assuming they were selected correctly and made to the right standards.

The lack of easy configurability can mean that a manufacturer has to decide on one or a few happy mediums, and set up the assembly line accordingly, praying that no external market force renders the set up outdated in the next few years. As the process of retooling a conventional manufacturing system is often an arduous task, changes would tend to be highly incremental and innovation can be stifled as a result.

Today, it’s also clear that the capabilities of conventional assembly line setups are unable to keep up with the growing desire for more personalization. In most markets, customers are demanding ever greater levels of customization at ever-lower prices.

The Present and Future of Manufacturing Rests on Configurability

The availability of easily configured tools and components has become central to today’s application of lean manufacturing processes. Tool configurability has been central to the trend of mass-customization, where every customer gets a bespoke product rather than a standardized one.

Today, mass-customization is applied to products as different as t-shirts and sports equipment to smart devices and passenger aircraft. As the use of information technology becomes more pervasive, it’s clear that the old systems with less configurability will be less and less able to cope with the needs of different shifting markets.

Given the decades of continued success manufacturers have had adopting configurability as a core concept, it’s surprising that not all new factories follow its principles. In a manufacturing context, configurable components offer flexibility, longevity, and security from unexpected contingencies. In a world where the saying “time is money” is truer than it ever was, better configurability allows a business to have more of both.

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