Editor's note: This blog post was originally published in July 2020 and updated with new information in Sept. 2023.
Manufacturing systems have evolved over time, driven by product design, economics, and emerging technology. Manufacturing systems are not a one-size-fits-all approach, though. Products, industries, and workforce needs all influence what type of manufacturing system will best serve an organization.
Manufacturing systems can refer to the top-level distinction between discrete and process manufacturing. In general, the former consists of standardized parts that can be disassembled later, such as cars and computers. The latter is a chemical transformation, like one that can take place in food and pharmaceuticals.
On the other hand, manufacturing systems can also refer to advanced methodologies like lean manufacturing, which aims to eliminate inefficiencies in production processes.
Manufacturing systems refer to the increasingly important combination of processes businesses employ for production. A streamlined manufacturing system provides a way for manufacturers to adjust machine operations, communicate with workers on the shop floor, and focus on quality control. Examples of commonly used manufacturing systems include:
The coordination of resources, machinery, and workers is essential to the development of a strong manufacturing system, which is responsible for the production and quality of goods. When all these elements work together, a manufacturing system can bring about:
There are a multitude of different processes organizations can follow as they manufacture goods, however, this general flow of steps is a good place to start.
It’s important to kick off the manufacturing process by determining the ideal production timeline and brainstorming the details of product development. In this stage, you should develop the roadmap for the rest of your manufacturing process.
The design stage of the manufacturing process includes steps such as creating blueprints and selecting appropriate materials. Remember to always consider the needs of your customers to ensure peak usability.
The basic materials or substances used to manufacture items can take a variety of forms. Gathering these raw materials needed for production is an important process, which includes sourcing stock from suppliers and assembling necessary supplies.
Once the planning and design stages are complete and you have successfully gathered your raw materials, manufacturing can commence. This part of the process transforms your team’s meticulously detailed concepts into real, physical items.
In this stage, products are checked for flaws and inadequacies. Quality control is integral to customer retention and satisfaction.
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.
Leah Gourley is a Digital Content Marketing Specialist based out of PTC's Boston office. She enjoys creating and sharing content surrounding the latest technologies that are transforming industries, including augmented reality and the industrial internet of things.