The Flexible Factory by ABB

Robots making customization and mass production possible at the same time.

The collaborative robot YuMi uses camera recognition to determine which parts are in front of it, and can move them with its flexible gripping hands. It can thus assemble small parts in the electronics industry or handle medical samples—without any risk of infection for its human colleagues. YuMi’s software has also been designed to be connected to older computer technology in laboratories and factories. Photo: Porsche Consulting

Customization and automated mass production were once two ends of the manufacturing spectrum. Today, they are being drawn together by the evolving needs of consumers. Imagine a bottling plant close to Madrid, where machines fill up to 50,000 bottles a day. It’s a manufacturing process that has served the beverage industry for decades, delivering high volumes of a standardized product at speed. But in this factory, something else is happening. Integrated within the line are robots that pick out individual bottles and put them on automatic guided vehicles, or AGVs. The bottles are transported to a separate station. Here, a small batch of bottles is filled with a different ingredient from the main batch or receives a special label. Whatever the customization process, it all happens quickly, efficiently and automatically, without interruption to the main production line.

To see the latest factories in operation is to understand that a fundamental transformation is underway, not just in the architecture and systems of manufacturing plants, but in the possibilities these new technologies enable. One company at the forefront of this development is ABB, the Swiss-based firm that provides the technology behind machine automation and robotics.

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