Various manufacturing systems have developed over time, driven by product design, economics, and technology. This post will dive into the different approaches to manufacturing products, and which manufacturing systems are suitable for which purposes.
Manufacturing systems can refer to the top-level distinction between discrete and process manufacturing. Broadly, the former is assemblies of standardized parts, that could be disassembled later—things like cars and computers. The latter is a chemical transformation such as food and pharmaceuticals.
At the other end of the manufacturing systems spectrum are advanced methodologies like lean manufacturing, which aims to eliminate inefficiency in the process. Here, we'll focus on the mid-level definition: the different systems on which plant infrastructure is based, whether process or discrete.
All manufacturing falls under one of these five major manufacturing systems, running the gamut from bespoke products through mass manufacture to modern mass customization.
Custom manufacturing describes the production of bespoke products, made to order, usually by a skilled craftsperson. It is a relative rarity in modern society, usually reserved for high-end variants of common products. Tailored suits, handmade furniture, and wedding cakes are all good examples.
Intermittent manufacturing can also be thought of as batch production—limited runs of similar products, usually to fulfill specific orders. Although machinery is often utilized, intermittent manufacturers commonly rely on skilled workers able to switch between different products. Clothing is a large-scale example which is often produced intermittently responding to demand of particular designs.
Otherwise known simply as ‘mass manufacture’, continuous manufacturing is what laypeople tend to think of as manufacturing. Production lines are set to produce the same product, often 24 hours a day, continuously, with the expectation that demand will meet supply. Continuous manufacturing commonly applies the assembly line methodology. The economies of scale make the cost-per-unit as low as possible, making continuous manufacturing incredibly efficient—but only if the quantities can justify the inflexibility.
Flexible manufacturing fulfills the same batch quantities as intermittent manufacturing, but with less reliance on skilled labor. Instead, high levels of robotics and automation enable machines to rapidly re-calibrate between different products and lines. Due to the speed of changeover, flexible manufacturing is sometimes referred to as ‘agile manufacturing.’ The system requires high levels of initial capital investment, and expansive pre-planning, but can offer a more favorable cost-per-unit—with even greater flexibility—than intermittent manufacturing once the plant is running.
Mass customization delivers individually customized products on a mass scale and production lines may be designed to accommodate simple customization. However, the convergence of digital design and manufacturing may allow customers to design highly complex customizations themselves that are automatically relayed to automated production lines, capable of adapting with no changeover time. As customers increasingly expect personalization—and the technology becomes more capable—mass customization is rapidly becoming the preferred method of production in many sectors.
Mass customization is enabled by digital manufacturing technology and techniques. Product lifecycle management (PLM) software unifies design and engineering data, which can be translated into user interfaces for customer customization. This information can then be fed to automated production lines.
Even static production environments—such as those intended for continuous production—can make use of digital manufacturing techniques. The efficiency gains made possible by real-time condition monitoring and advanced machine learning analytics can make batch runs and some level of customization economic even on inflexible production lines. As mass customization becomes more entrenched in the sector, such adaptability—seamlessly transitioning between manufacturing systems—will become increasingly necessary to compete.