For companies pursuing the best manufacturing standards, the assembly process can be a bit of an enigma. On one hand, assembly operations should be a straightforward process of inserting parts A and B together. But often, assembly processes are not so simple.
Factors like the materials used, company goals, consumer demand, and workforce capabilities will all positively and negatively influence how any assembly is carried out within a company.
Adding to this, the challenges and opportunities are constantly changing and evolving. The challenges that Henry Ford faced when he created the assembly line are very different from the challenges that mixed-model manufacturers face today.
However, there are new intelligent methods and Industry 4.0 & 5.0 technologies that directly address and solve the complexities of the modern assembly process.
5 Step-by-Step Methods to Enhance Your Assembly Processes
1. Review Your Current Workflow
The first step is to observe your current workflow.
Before any improvements can be made, you need to have an in-depth understanding of your current assembly processes and capabilities. If you don’t have an in-depth understanding of your current workflow, your eventual improvements could be shot in the dark at best.
Whether you are a low-mix/high-volume or high-mix/low-volume manufacturer, every workflow can be broken down into 3 key factors:
1. People: Workers are the core of any business. They are the ones that add value and drive production forward. But, only if you have the right people with the right skills.
High-mix-low-volume manufacturers tend to heavily rely on the abilities of their people to stay flexible with shifting consumer demands. For this reason, these manufacturers must focus on how their people will be able to adjust to new work and learn new skills.
3 questions about your current people/workforce.
- Do workers understand their tasks and responsibilities?
- Can they maintain the best quality practices with every sequence of work?
- Is leadership able to monitor and direct workers with the company vision and objectives in mind?
2. Processes: Your processes are how things get done. While there are many ways to accomplish one job, there will always be the best way that suits the needs of your organization and workforce.
From complex assembly procedures to proper machine setup, your processes need to reflect the best practices of your company.
3 questions about your existing processes.
- Do your processes reflect the needs of your manufacturing environment?
- Are your processes documented and standardized?
- Do workers have access to the best practices and methods?
3. Technology: Your equipment, tools, and systems supercharge the power of your workforce and processes. Machines help your workforce produce more products faster while your software systems enable your workforce to become more resilient, productive, and smarter.
Low-mix/high-volume manufacturers will typically lean heavily on their machines and technology to produce high volumes of product, so all equipment and systems must be working at peak efficiency.
3 questions about your technology.
- Are your machines and tools in good repair?
- Does your software system address your current challenges and goals?
- Is your current technological setup flexible to new challenges and goals?
A useful tool to review your current workflow is Gemba Walks. Leaders are encouraged to go to the real place and simply observe, evaluate, and understand their current strengths and weaknesses. It may be tempting to label weak areas or start making improvements right away but this step is all about observation.
2. Identify Weak Points and Enact Worthwhile Improvements
Once you have reviewed your existing workflow, start identifying areas for improvement within your assembly processes. Weak points can be identified by finding regularly practiced workarounds, excessive managerial oversight, and consistently poor quality and productivity.
Assembly processes that have existed for a long time without any documented changes can be a good place to start. Even if there have been changes due to new people, processes, and technologies, the assembly process may not have improved in any meaningful way.
To help you identify valuable and intelligent improvements, use the following tools and methodologies.
Pareto Analysis: Identify issues that have the greatest impact on your business and prioritize solving those issues to effect the greatest positive change. For example, under the Pareto principle, approximately 80% of assembly issues are caused by 20% of workers. This means that if you strengthened that 20% of workers through training or resources, you would effectively improve 80% of your assembly issues.
Root Cause Analysis: Easily identifiable challenges can simply be the symptom of a harder-to-see problem. Use Root Cause Analysis to visually break down the cause of weaknesses in your assembly process.
Value Stream Mapping (VSM): Track and visualize how value moves through your operation. This methodology will help you identify waste and increase value for the customer.
Theory of Constraints: Your assembly process can only be as strong as its weakest link. Identify the limiting factor, maximize its capacity, and match all other constraints to ensure a consistent flow.
To find the methods that best suit your product and environment, it is helpful to talk to your best-performing employees. They know the process inside out and are a valuable resource for continuous improvement on an assembly floor.
Do you need an intelligent source for manufacturing topics and technologies? Explore the VKS Dictionary and discover new terms each week.
3. Standardize Your Assembly Process Improvements
Now that you’ve enacted improvements, you’ll need to figure out how to distribute and maintain them. Improvements that are not documented and shared are quickly forgotten.
The number one tool for maintaining process improvements is standardization. Documented and standardized processes that reflect your best practices help to ensure that every process is performed correctly.
However, not all standardization methods are the same.
While some companies may choose to print their work instructions and SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) on sheets of paper, they are likely to degrade over time. Adding to this, printed processes are hard to navigate, laborious to update, and rarely used by workers.
Instead, assembly manufacturers are using work instruction software to optimize their standardization procedures. Unlike paper, these digitally standardized procedures never degrade or get lost on some dusty shelf. Rather, these digital instructions become part of the process and guide workers through every procedure with pictures, videos, and annotations.
Every complex assembly action is accurately and visually depicted, enabling every worker to quickly and confidently accomplish the best procedure, regardless of experience. From re-orienting small parts to fastening large components together, standardizing your assembly processes with digital work instructions ensures that every operator has the right knowledge and skills.
And as more improvements are made, updating your instructions is made easy with fast updates and version control.
4. Ensure Proper Assembly with Every Fastener
Within the assembly of any product, quality highly depends on how well and consistently fasteners are applied. If a fastener is under-tightened, the components may loosen over time. If the fastener is over-tightened, it may damage the product and actually prevent the assembly from staying together in the long run.
For this reason, workers must know how to properly use their tools to enact the right measure of force for every fastener. They need to ensure that their machines apply the right force.
The problem is that all components and assembly fasteners require different levels of force and different angles.
To solve this issue across all assembly procedures, manufacturers can leverage smart tools and work instruction software to facilitate proper assembly with every fastener. Smart tools powered by IoT can be set to apply only a specific level of force and even present an error message on the device controller if a bolt is improperly fastened.
However, if we pair smart tool technology with VKS Work Instructions, the power of these smart tools becomes even stronger.
Our work instruction and ToolConnect IoT platform will communicate directly with the smart tool to enhance the following assembly process goals.
Streamed Productivity: VKS communicates with the smart tool to automatically set the required parameters for each specific bolt while automatically advancing the work instructions. An assembly operator can fasten one bolt with 55nm of force and then immediately fasten another bolt with 75nm of force without ever needing to change the settings on the smart tool.
Increased Quality: Every fastener is applied with the right measure of force according to the specifications entered in the guidebook. If a bolt is improperly fastened, the work instructions will not allow the operator to advance to the next step.
Smarter Error Proofing: Using our Tool Lock feature, if the operator is not on the right step requiring a smart tool, the tool is locked from use. This practice ensures that bolts are only fastened according to the digital work instructions.
More Quality Data: As soon as a smart tool is used, VKS records the assembly data within an assembly history record. This data can then be used at any time to validate the process and share with customers as a record of quality assurance.
5. Keep Assembly Flow at Maximum Capacity With the Theory of Constraints
While focusing on how individual parts are assembled is a key concern of assembly management, manufacturers also need to focus on how all components flow through the complete operation.
To help assembly processes maintain a consistent and maximum flow, manufacturers can adopt the Theory of Constraints methodology.
According to the production philosophy of the theory of constraints, no assembly management system can ever be completely balanced. Assembly processes and operations will always have several limitations and bottlenecks that dictate the rate of production.
In other words: just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, an assembly process can only be as productive as its least productive element.
For example, if one component takes 2 days to manufacture while another component takes only a few hours, the rate of production is limited to the speed of the longer-timed component.
However, by following 5 steps, assembly manufacturers can maximize their capacity and ensure optimal flow.
- Identify: Find the assembly process/procedure that is ultimately responsible for the speed of production (the constraint).
- Exploit: Ensure that the constraint is always working at max capacity.
- Subordinate: Mitigate the buildup of excess material before the constraint by subordinating all other processes to only work at the speed of the constraint.
- Elevate: Work on widening the bottleneck to ultimately speed up the capacity and speed of production until the identified constraint is no longer the greatest limiting factor.
- Repeat: Go back to step 1 and find the next most limiting constraint.
By following these five simple steps, manufacturers can maximize production output while also honing in on the specific factors that need improvement and optimization.