Production Technology

New production technology for a demanding market

By Denise Wergeland
January 29, 2007

Norwegian manufacturers of high-tech products are predicted a promising future. However, market demands are increasing. Success depends on the ability to constantly develop innovative products and rapidly reorganize the production according to market demands. Instead of flagging out parts of the enterprise, researchers claim that it is possible to make the production more automatic, robust and flexible. Not to mention adapted to global value chains. In this way, industry in high-cost Norway could increase its competitiveness.

Illustrasjonsbilde/FOTO

NORMAN is a Centre for research-based innovation that builds its activities on this scenario.

Industry’s need for more research on efficient production has emerged simultaneously with a more demanding market and the growing complexity of customer demands. The greatest challenge is to be close to the customers and meet their demands as soon as possible. Customers want new products in new materials and more versions. And they want them fast.

Previously, people were satisfied with one type of office chair. Now they want to choose between several types. Not only do they want multiple colours, they also want different shapes and functionality. And they demand swift delivery and low product price.

To meet market demands, companies offering a wide range of products can benefit from adapting to so-called flexible automatic production, which enables the adjustment the production according to orders.

Improved production technology
The customer is to experience high quality products at the same time as total costs remain low. This poses higher demands on production and logistics. Production must be on schedule and flexible, and the products be easily available.

NORMAN researches the next generation of production techniques to enable Norwegian manufacturers of goods to maintain their international market position.

The strategy is to facilitate flexible production lines in the factories, robust networks and good digital models for product development. The basic technology exists, but it needs to be developed further. And the methods must be tailored to the individual process.

Facing competition
Research Centre Director Odd Myklebust states that the mission of the Centre is to serve an already exposed industry.

”Our goal is to help Norwegian manufacturers face competition from low-cost countries and other high-cost countries. That is why one of NORMAN’s roles is to prepare industry for the conditions awaiting them in the future,” says Odd Myklebust. He claims the manufacturing industry is one of the sectors Norway should strengthen to secure the country’s industry once the oil era reaches its end.

“It is important to build the foundation now, and not wait until our oil is depleted,” he emphasizes.

Mechanization at an early stage
The very first example of mechanization known in history is a mechanically controlled weaving mill in Lyon in France in the early 1700s. Back then they used cardboard punched cards that controlled the raising and lowering of the warp. This can be regarded as the precursor of the 20th century’s punch-card machines. Exactly the same technique was used to program the first computers.

Industrial mechanization began when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in the production of his T-Ford in the early 1900s. The principle of transporting the goods mechanically in the factory was a breakthrough for the manufacturers of consumer goods. Ford copied the meat industry, where assembly lines were used in large slaughterhouses. Later, the food industry retrieved Ford’s assembly line principle for other parts of their production. Today, assembly lines are essential in all industrial high-volume production.

Norwegian cell technology - a breakthrough
Mechanization gradually became a natural part of the industrial society. But it was not until robots were introduced that made it possible to move items automatically between machines, that the consumer goods industry boom. Norway got its first robot as early as 1959.

In the 1970s, when Professor Øyvind Bjørke at NTNU proved that cell technology could be an alternative to the linear production line, we saw the first example of a flexible automatic production process. Cell technology is based on machines placed in clusters rather than lines. The parts can be moved between different machines in the clusters according to need and in varying order. This revolutionary idea was a major discovery for manufacturers, including the aircraft engine producers at Kongsberg and car part manufacturers at Raufoss. The idea also attracted international attention.

Illustrasjonsbilde/FOTO Robots with low adaptive capacity
Today, a large number of factories are highly automatic. We have flexible robots, but these have rather low adaptive capacity. For instance, the gripping power is not good enough.

”Modern robots can be programmed to use a single gripping tool that only fits a small number of items. If the robot is going to grip several different items, it needs a system for changing gripping tools. It cannot pick up anything placed randomly in a box, that would require expensive supplementary equipment,” says Professor Terje K. Lien at NTNU.

”One of the challenges in production technology is to develop the robot’s gripping function with a sense of force and electronic vision, so it can 'see' what it is handling and know how much force it is using,” he explains.

Research is also conducted on technology for adaptive machines, i.e. production machines with supplementary equipment equally flexible as the machine itself. According to Professor Lien, the use of electronic cameras and force measurement through sensors are a relevant solution in this instance as well.

More flexible systems on their way
So-called adaptive factories involve production lines which are easily reorganized to fit the need. They will feature automatic processes that regulate themselves. The production lines can be quickly reorganized from making identical parts to making different parts on the line. From mass-produced one-metre planks, the production line can switch to producing planks of different shapes and lengths. This requires digital production with wireless information transfer. With new technology we can develop new production methods and systems that are more efficient, flexible and robust.

Building bridges with ICT
ICT builds bridges between business processes, production and control. In this way, production can also be made more cost effective. Norway boasts a strong and well-functioning infrastructure, good access to resources and a high level of knowledge.

”These resources are useful in a modern market that demands unique single products. Customers with a lot of money are willing to pay for goods that are tailor-made. Norwegian industry already has the knowledge required to meet such demands. Besides, we operate in proximity to the market and have a good understanding of the customer's needs," says Professor Jan Ola Strandhagen.

Excellent research processes
Norwegian industry has found its place in the large production landscape.

”We have realized that we do not need to create everything from scratch, and in that way we have become good at adopting other people’s experience to fit new frames,” adds Jan Ola Strandhagen. He also points out that the distance between industry and academia is smaller in Norway than in many other comparable countries.

”Many other countries have industries that admire academia from a distance, but that is not the case with us. Here, researchers and managers walk in and out of each other’s offices. And this type of mingling gives rise to prolific ideas,” he points out.

Distance to product development
Yet another major challenge is the flagging out of Norwegian industry. Several large companies move parts of or their entire production to low-cost countries. In the first instance this is cost-saving and provides an opportunity for the company to concentrate on their core skills. However, there are obvious drawbacks to this solution. Vast distances make it difficult to follow up contractors. And the ties between product development and production are weakened. Companies can actually be ousted by their own contractors when these contractors start their own production as they know just as much about the product as those who have given them the contract.

Logistics is much more demanding, and long delivery time could lead to indirect costs. These facts are very often omitted from the calculation. New technology with emphasis on flexible and efficient logistics is necessary to meet these challenges.

FACTS ABOUT NORMAN

Name:
Norwegian Manufacturing Future (Norman)

Host institution:
SINTEF Technology and Society

Vision:
Contribute to making Norwegian manufacturers of goods internationally competitive in the future.

Research Centre Director:
Odd Myklebust

Partners:
SINTEF, NTNU, RTIM, and 16 product manufacturers

Total budget:
NOK 160 million over 8 years.

Number of staff/students at the Centre/in the research group:
13 PhD students and 3 post-docs. In addition, there are approx. 20 full-time/part-time researchers. The Centre is located in Trondheim with an industrial unit at Raufoss.

Postal address:
SINTEF Technology and Society, NO-7465, Trondheim, Norway

Tel: (+47) 73 59 03 00

Office address:
SINTEF Technology and Society, S.P. Andersens vei 5, Trondheim, Norway

Raufoss Technology and Industrial Management, RTIM, Raufoss Industripark, NO-2831 Raufoss, Norway

Contact person:
Odd Myklebust Tel: (+ 47) 926 14 449
Email: odd.myklebust@sintef.no

Duration of project:
8 years

Centre for Research-based Innovation (CRI):
The establishment of the Centres for Research-based Innovation (CRI) emphasizes Norway’s long-term prioritizing of R&D for the business sector. In 2006, a total of 14 Centres were established. The main objective for the Centres for Research-based Innovation is to enhance the capability of the business sector to innovate by focusing on long-term research based on forging close alliances between research-intensive enterprises and prominent research groups. (In the long run this basic research will also benefit small and middle-sized enterprises that lack their own research departments.) The total budget for the 14 CRIs will amount to NOK 2 billion over the next eight years. Here the contribution from the Research Council of Norway is NOK 1 billion. The host institution and partners contribute NOK 500 million each.