Using modularisation in plants

Louise Smyth

In 2014, Google introduced the Project Ara prototype — the first modular phone. The aim was to create a smartphone with interchangeable components to increase the lifespan of handsets. A few years on, modularisation is offering a simple way for industry to improve manufacturing processes. Here, Jonathan Wilkins of EU Automation explains how manufacturers can digitalise their plants using modularisation.

Project Ara created a device that meant users could easily swap cameras, batteries and screens to upgrade their smartphones without purchasing a whole new phone. The project was cancelled as the phone became bulky and expensive. While modular phones are not currently a reality, the same approach is proving valuable to manufacturers.

As we shift to more digitalised manufacturing processes, physical assets in the factory are increasingly being connected to the internet. However, building a smart factory can seem unachievable to some manufacturers because of the costs of automation and the complexity of the project.
It is not necessary to replace an entire system to digitalise a production line. A simple first step is to purchase some internet connected devices, or sensors to connect existing equipment, to collect data about the current system. However, without detailed planning, the data may be fragmented and not collect all the information needed.
To implement a more holistic approach, manufacturers can invest in equipment to help them digitalise the entire facility without the cost of an entirely new system.
Building blocks

Modularisation has been an important part of machine design for two decades. Machine components or sub-systems can be combined in different ways to complete a variety of functions.
Manufacturers usually choose to invest in modular machines because of their flexibility. By purchasing a base frame that can be built upon with different components, the plant manager is able to adapt the machine for different applications. Modules can also work in a range of different configurations to work on a single production line, or multiple production lines. 
Modularisation is a more affordable way to start digitalising a plant, as manufacturers only invest in the equipment they need at that time and can make upgrades accordingly. For example, manufacturers may invest in internet-connected devices that currently run using 4G networks. However, developers suggest that 5G networks will be launched worldwide by 2020, which may lead manufacturers to believe their machines are obsolete. If they use modular machines, they can simply replace the receiver and upgrade the network without replacing the infrastructure.

OEMs are releasing systems more quickly than a manufacturer will require, due to their long lifespans and robust designs. Consequently, equipment can become obsolete a few years before the machine is due to break down. Manufacturers can work with obsolete parts suppliers who can source and deliver obsolete, reconditioned and new parts to help manufacturers avoid replacing their systems whenever there is an issue.
Manufacturers also benefit from modularisation as they can more easily maintain the production line. If a module does break, they only need to replace one small part to quickly return to production, rather than replace the whole machine. Just like it is cheaper to replace a phone screen rather than the entire handset.
The future

Manufacturers take their first steps up the ladder of digitalisation with modularisation. Because of its scalability and flexibility, modularisation allows manufacturers of any size to purchase the system they need to work on single or multiple production lines and update it as required later on.
Project Ara may not have been a success, but in manufacturing, modularisation can help companies realise Industry 4.0.

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