An introduction to the manufacturing workflow and how products are made by industrial companies
In my last few posts, I have explained what industrial automation is, how the automation systems that power industrial automation are built, and provided an easy way to understand the components that makeup automation systems.
Now that we understand industrial automation and automation systems, we can turn our attention to the way that goods and products are manufactured. In this post, I will explain how companies use a combination of industrial automation and manual labour to manufacture products.
In this post, I will walk you through the manufacturing workflow for a typical manufacturing company. With practical examples, you will learn how a company manufactures a product from receiving raw materials all the way through shipping the finished product out the door.
The idea of this post is to give you a holistic view of the manufacturing process that many people working in the industry don’t have.
By the end of the post, you will be able to describe the steps involved in a typical manufacturing process and recognize some of the machinery used in manufacturing. Basically, you will have a good understanding of industrial manufacturing and the processes involved in making a product.
Now that we know what we will learn in the post, let’s meet the company that we will be following while we learn about the manufacturing process.
Before we move on, I would like to take a moment to introduce myself to anyone who might be new to the blog.
My name is Ken Bourke and I have worked as an automation professional for almost a decade. During this time, I have worked on large global projects in different industries around the world.
In the last year, I have started producing content online to share my knowledge through free blog posts and free or very reasonably priced courses.
If you get some value out of this post then consider checking out my courses, joining the mailing list using the form at the bottom of this page, or, if you’re feeling very generous, buying me a coffee using the Buy Me a Coffee widget on this page.
With that bit of shameless self-promotion out of the way, let’s get back to looking at Paper Joiner Ltd’s manufacturing process.
Paper Joiners Ltd is a company that manufactures and sells staplers, a “simple” product that everyone reading this should be familiar with.
What do you think is involved in manufacturing staplers?
It turns out that even simple products can be complex to manufacture.
A stapler for example is made up of more than 21 unique parts. Some of these parts are manufactured by Paper Joiners Ltd and the rest are bought from suppliers.
Regardless of the origin of the parts, all of the parts have to be assembled into the final product and each stapler has to be packed and shipped to Paper Joiner Ltd’s customers around the globe.
So how does a typical company manufacture a product like a stapler?
A manufacturing company is made up of different departments that have different responsibilities. These departments are filled with people and equipment that work together to produce finished products for their customers.
In this section, we will talk about the manufacturing workflow used by Paper Joiners Ltd to manufacture staplers. Even though we are talking about a specific company, all manufacturing companies follow a similar workflow so this information applies to most companies building consumer goods.
Also, keep in mind that this is an example of a typical manufacturing workflow. I have never worked in a stapler factory so some details might be a little bit off!
Let’s start at the beginning of the workflow: the receiving area.
At the Receiving Area, trucks deliver raw materials and purchased components to Paper Joiners Ltd.
Raw materials are transported from receiving to the manufacturing area.
In this area, machines are used to process the raw materials and turn them into components that are used to assemble a stapler.
Purchased and manufactured components are transported to the assembly area.
In this area, the components are combined to create the finished product. Depending on the process, the assembly process can be a highly manual or highly automated process.
Assembled staplers are sent to the packaging area.
In this area, staplers are packed into boxes, boxes are packed into cases, and cases are placed on pallets.
These pallets are then shrink-wrapped for easy transportation.
Pallets of completed and packed products are transported to a warehouse. They are stored in the warehouse until they are delivered to Paper Joiner Ltd’s customers around the world.
Now that we have a high-level overview of the process, let's dive into the details and see what happens at each step in the manufacturing workflow, starting with the Receiving process.
During the receiving process, a manufacturing company accepts deliveries of the materials that it needs to run its operations.
Companies receive obvious things like raw materials that are used to manufacture components, components that have been manufactured by suppliers, and packaging materials to pack finished products in.
They also receive less obvious things like toilet paper, which is not required for their manufacturing process but is required to keep the business running.
A receiving dock is a physical location in a plant where goods are received.
Paper Joiners Ltd has two receiving docks.
One is called the Components Receiving Dock, where all of the components that are delivered to Paper Joiners Ltd are received.
The other dock is called the Steel Receiving Dock, where all of the heavy steel coils are delivered.
As we will see later on, Paper Joiners Ltd needs two separate receiving docks because they need different equipment to receive components and steel coils.
At the Components Receiving Dock delivery trucks back up to bays to be unloaded.
Delivery trucks are unloaded with fork trucks, pallet jacks, or automated conveyor systems.
The choice of which method to use depends on what is being unloaded, the volume being unloaded, and the flexibility that the receiving company needs.
For example, an automated conveyor system can be used to unload a truck quickly but can only transport materials along a fixed path.
In contrast, a fork truck takes more time to unload a truck but can be used to transport materials and products to almost anywhere in the facility.
At Paper Joiners Ltd, conveyors are used to unload the trucks.
The components and materials that are unloaded from the trucks are placed on conveyors by operators. The automated conveyor system transports materials that are immediately needed to the production area and the remaining material to a storage area until it is required for the production process.
You can see an example of how this unloading process might look in the video below from Laurent Uvo.
Paper Joiners Ltd also has a Sheet Metal Receiving Dock.
This dock is used to receive heavy goods, like the huge rolls of sheet metal that Paper Joiners Ltd uses to manufacture the steel parts used in its staplers.
The receiving process for heavy materials is separated from the receiving process of components and raw materials because heavy materials require special handling equipment.
Specifically, roll and coil handlers are used to transport steel coils around a facility. These are special types of fork trucks and pallet jacks that are specifically designed to handle steel coils.
You can see an example of a piece of roll-handling equipment in the video below from Dimeco.
Now that we know how the receiving process works, let's turn our attention to the Manufacturing process.
The manufacturing area is where a manufacturing company like Paper Joiner’s Ltd uses industrial equipment and manufacturing processes to convert raw materials into useful components and finished products.
In Paper Joiner’s Ltd, the manufacturing area is divided into two departments with different specializations. Those departments are the molding department, which is responsible for producing plastic components, and the sheet metal department, which is responsible for producing metal components.
Let’s start by looking at the molding department.
The molding department manufactures many of the plastic components that go into staplers manufactured by Paper Joiners Ltd including the handle, pads, and a nylon hinge.
To manufacture these parts, workers feed raw rubber and plastic pellets into injection molding machines.
An injection molding machine melts the plastic pellets into a liquid and then forces the molten plastic into a steel mold, which is a negative of the shape of the component being manufactured. These steel molds were specifically designed for Paper Joiners Ltd.
The molten plastic cools and the solid plastic components are removed from the mold and dropped in a bin.
This cycle repeats constantly to produce the plastic components that are required for the stapler assembly.
The finished parts are transported to the assembly area to be used in stapler assemblies.
You can see an animation of the injection molding process in the video below from Tronicarts.
It's worth noting that the staff at Paper Joiners Ltd are experts at using molding machinery to produce plastic parts but they are not experts at building molding machinery.
Like many manufacturing companies, Paper Joiners Ltd buys its machinery from an Original Equipment Manufacturer, often abbreviated to OEM. An OEM is an expert at designing a specific type of machinery such as an injection molding machine.
End users, like Paper Joiners Ltd, buy machines from different OEMs and joins them together to automate their manufacturing workflow.
Now that we know how the plastic components are made, let’s turn our attention to the metal fabrication department at Paper Joiner’s Ltd to see how the metal components are made.
The Sheet Metal Department manufactures many of the metal components that are used in stapler assemblies like the top bracket, spring channel, and anvil.
Paper Joiners Ltd receives huge coils of sheet metal that are 24" wide. This is a standard width for sheet metal coils.
As you know, the metal parts in a stapler are small so Paper Joiners Ltd uses a machine called a slitter to cut the metal coils into a more manageable, practical size.
In a slitter, coils are mounted on a mandrel and the coil is unrolled. While the coil is being unrolled, blades cut the coil into strips that are only a few inches wide.
These narrow strips are fed into a machine called a rewinder which rolls the strips into narrow coils. These narrow coils can be used with other machinery in the Sheet Metal Department.
You can see an example of a huge slitting and rewinding line in the video below from Honjia Machine.
Once the raw metal in the Sheet Metal Department has been processed, the small coils can be into industrial machines to form the metal components used in the stapler assembly.
One of the most common pieces of equipment used to form metal components is a press. A press is usually the most cost-effective way to form metal parts.
In a press, a strip of metal is fed into the machine. The press head comes down and pushes the metal into a die to shape and cut the metal.
Even though it sounds like a simple process, a press can be used to make components with complex shapes when equipped with the right die.
You can see an example of a press in action in the video below from TSINFA.
Note that with both presses and molding machines, raw materials can be fed to the machines and components can be discharged automatically, semi-automatically, or manually. The level of automation used in the process will largely depend on the volumes being manufactured.
The finished components are then transported to the assembly area where they will be used in stapler assemblies.
Now that we know how the manufacturing process works, let's take a look at the assembly process.
At this point in the manufacturing process, all of the components required to build a stapler are available at the manufacturing facility.
Some of those components have been bought in from third-party suppliers and some of them have been manufactured from raw materials on-site at Paper Joiners Ltd.
The components are assembled into staplers in the assembly area.
Depending on the product being assembled, the assembly process can be manual, automated, or semi-automated.
As a general rule, more complex assembly processes are more likely to be manual. In this context, complexity doesn't only mean how difficult the components are to assemble together. Complexity can also come from having many different products to assemble.
You can see an example of a manual assembly process in the image below.
In this process, components are delivered to operators. Operators assemble these components into finished products at stations using tools.
Generally, each product is sent to an inspection station where a quality inspection is carried out to make sure that it is assembled correctly.
An assembly process is likely to be automated if it is simple and highly repetitive. For simple, highly repetitive tasks automation can generally perform tasks faster and more accurately than people for less cost.
In the video below, you can see an example of a partially automated assembly process where some of the components that make up a stapler are assembled together by a machine.
The more complex part of the assembly will then be finished by an operator.
After assembly, the finished staplers are sent to the packaging area where they will be packaged into containers, cases, and pallets.
Now that we know how the assembly process works, let's see how finished goods are packaged in the packaging area.
After being assembled, the complete staplers are put into packaging.
The individual staplers are placed into individual packaging containers or plastic clamshell cases like the ones shown below.
The piece of packaging that actually touches the product is called the primary packaging for the product.
Depending on the product, the primary packaging operation may be manual or automated.
After primary packaging, the individually packaged staplers are placed into cases. There are usually a fixed number of products packaged in each case.
A case is an example of secondary packaging for a product.
Very often, the secondary packaging process is automated. A case-packing machine will erect a case, place a fixed number of products in a case, and seal the case shut.
The completed case is ejected from the case packing machine ready for palletizing.
You can see an example of a side-loading case-packing machine in the video below from Sidel. This is called a side-loading machine because the products are loaded into the case from the side. Other types of case-packing machines include top-loading and wraparound machines.
Next, the packed cases are loaded onto pallets for shipping.
This process is usually automated because it is repetitive and strenuous. Palletizing is carried out by a machine called a palletizer. A common type of palletizer is a robotic palletizer which uses a robotic arm to transfer cases onto pallets.
You can see an example of a robotic palletizer from BW Integrated Systems in the video below.
Finally, the pallet is shrink-wrapped to prevent cases from falling off the pallet during transport.
Once again, the shrink-wrapping process may be manual, semi-automatic, or automatic depending on the size of the company and the number of pallets being wrapped per day.
In the video below, you can see an example of a semi-automated shrink-wrapping machine with manual loading and unloading.
After shrink-wrapping, the completed pallets are transported to a warehouse for storage until they are eventually shipped out to Paper Joiners Ltd’s customers around the world.
At this stage, we have followed the entire manufacturing workflow of Paper Joiners Ltd.
In this pody, we have seen the receiving, manufacturing, assembly, and packaging operations of Paper Joiners Ltd.
By now, you should be able to describe the manufacturing workflow for a typical company, describe what happens and each step in the manufacturing workflow, and recognize some of the machinery that is used in manufacturing.
Now that we know what happens in the manufacturing workflow, I would like to tell you about who is involved. In my next few posts, I will explain the main roles that are involved in manufacturing.
If you haven’t already, sign up to the mailing list below to be notified when that post is published.
PS if you are interested in learning how to develop the software that controls some of the machines that we have discussed in this post, consider signing up to my free course PLC Bootcamp, that teaches you how to write, test, and simulate your first PLC program using free tools.
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