Flexible Manufacturing Systems (FMS)

In the last two or three decades, technology has made tremendous progress, particularly in the areas of automation and computerization. To match these advances, improved systems of production are also being used and further developed. In the automated factory of Yamazaki Machinery Works in Nagoya, Japan it is stated that only one person is employed as a watchman for the night shift while 18 machining centers keep on working in the $ 18 million flexible manufacturing facility. Of course such facilities exist mainly in the developed countries and comparatively few have been adopted in India. But, we cannot be oblivious to these developments, since we have been investing significantly in the industrial and industry related sectors and also if our products are to compete in the international market.

Both automatic and automated factories are envisaged for the future. While the former is people less, the latter still requires people to deal with out-of-the-way situations and to do a number of indirect tasks perhaps one could have both, where the parts produced in the automatic factory which fail to meet quality standards can be sent to the automated factory where such usual items could be handled. For a low variety and high volume production an automatic factory would be suitable; whereas automated plants are suitable for larger variety of production. All such automatic and automated plants require the use of robots, Flexible Manufacturing Systems, Automated Guided Vehicle Systems (AGVS), Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) Integrated Inspection and computers to provide the essential links.

Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS):

Once a Group (GT) or the parts and products is available, a computer can be used to design the production operations, control the parts flow and control the machine tools in a small batch type of production situation. Such Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) is very useful for small lot production. If the machine tools feature NC or CNC technology, it gives tremendous flexibility to the operations and numerous parts in the ‘family’ can be addressed with no changeovers. For an efficient and flexible manufacturing system (which could address a diverse requirement efficiently) the availability of a suitable material handling system is very important. When the material handling function between machines in such a GT cell is brought under computer control, we have a Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS)

Thus an FMS generally has the following three components:

(1) CNC machine tools;
(2) Computer controlled material handling system; and
(3) Supervisory computer control network.

FMS systems are generally very useful for production involving an intermediate range of variety and an intermediate amount of volume.

The benefits of such automation include flexibility in producing variety and volume, low setup times, high output rates and low process induced variability in the output. In addition to the enhanced flexibility and speed there is an improvement in the quality of the produce.

However, for such automated systems the capital costs and the maintenance costs could be high. FMS could be very flexible and effective within the range that it is designed for. But it is limited to the range of tasks and flexibility that it is designed/ programmed for. Machines, including robots which are described next have the inherent inflexibility. Human beings can have flexibility of the other kind; they can be trained for a broader variety of tasks and they can be deployed at different places as they can be cross trained. Care should be taken while designing an FMS that it provides the needed qualitative and quantitative gains to the production facility and also that needs minimal human intervention in its operation. A well designed well planned FMS would be a valuable strategic asset to the company.