We are on the verge of a new way of manufacturing goods — one that’s powered by the combination of people, new materials development, and technologies such as augmented reality, autonomous guided vehicles and advanced analytics.

With a cyber physical production system, or CPPS, it’s not the product that goes into a line — instead, the entire assembly moves across the product. In other words, imagine that physical spaces (or “factories”, in older terms) will be able to assemble any product variant with any shape and with all sorts of customised options.

The concept is revolutionary: CPPS introduces a vision of a production shop floor consisting of individual assets that connect as needed and dissolve again, resulting in a continuously changing production layout. It adapts itself based on business priorities and customer demand instead of trying to maximise production with potential risks, such as creating intermediate stocks.

New markets, new methods

In the last few decades, we’ve seen companies turn from a product-centric to a customer-centric mind-set. As they started to understand their customers better, new markets were formed, leading to more personalised, innovative products and services offerings.

However, this has also led to increased complexity around manufacturing and the entire supply chain. And since it is more difficult to forecast demand, many manufacturers either carry more days of inventory or miss their delivery commitments.

Unsurprisingly, part of the issue is the fact that high-volume production lines aren’t designed for a great variability in products.

CPPS changes all that. By allowing high-volume and high-mix production at the same time, the extremely mobile and cellular system enables the manufacturing of highly customised products, aiming at very low quantities per product mix — commonly called “lot size one”. Basically, CPPS disrupts classic production control tasks by enabling a manufacturing freedom never seen before.

New methods, new benefits

The projected advantages of CPPS are numerous:

  • Efficiency of production set-up increases (although still constrained by production asset availability).
  • Days of finished goods and intermediate inventory decrease as production turns to assemble-to-order (ATO) and configure-to-order (CTO), with intermediate stocks being produced by additive manufacturing technologies.
  • Production flexibility increases based on business prioritisation.
  • Dissolving spatial fixation and the allocation of resources makes it possible to shift work contents, work sequence and work distribution.

New benefits, new challenges

CPPS is not a short-term investment, and several preconditions need to be met before realising benefits — but there is little question it will become a reality. The question that keeps arising is whether manufacturers should wait and invest in proven scaled-up technology, or start experimenting and tap into new solutions right away.

When thinking about how to enable the manufacturing of tomorrow, it is important to evaluate two parallel tracks: “Start with small projects and learn smart manufacturing by doing” and “Be part of an ecosystem”.

While the challenges are known, the most important point remains: CPPS may be the key enabler for future strategic differentiation that can come by

  • Personalising customer products and experiences in a sustainable production
  • Producing a wealth of different products with different characteristics in a single location
  • Steering real-time production towards business priorities

In short, the ability to produce a wealth of different products with different characteristics in a single location can be a powerful and disruptive way to serve future clients and markets.