Use Broad Plan To Automate HMLV Plants

EP Editorial Staff | May 1, 2022

HMLV needs flexible optimization when deploying automation technology to improve all production runs, not just one.

Implementing digital transformation in a high-product-mix-with-lower-volumes environment must involve all facets of the system.

By Aurelio Banda, Motion

As we enter an era of highly adaptive environments, HMLV (high product mix with lower volumes) industries struggle with efficiency, flexibility, and control in production settings that are intrinsically complicated, messy, and substandard. Product manufacturers in these environments contend with increasing customization, growing lead-time pressures, constant change in markets with demand volatility, and shorter planning cycles.

At the same time, product runs always need to increase quality and traceability requirements, and there is never-ending pressure to cut costs and create efficient use of capital. While manufacturers have deployed automation technologies and robotics to ease these struggles, these unique products and process complexity requirements have made it more difficult for manufacturing leaders to properly set a strategy for their digital-transformation journey.

A comprehensive case, coupled with a broad strategic plan, is needed to anchor digital transformation. Most implementations are too narrow and leave automation islands within a manufacturing environment while never realizing the broader productivity, utilization, and flexibility gains in a highly connected, automated smart factory.

The time to take swift action with automation is now, with potentially significant impact for manufacturers applying these technologies. In these high-complexity, low-volume manufacturing environments, automation technologies such as robotics, machine vision, intelligent pneumatics, IIoT, artificial intelligence, machine learning, flexible conveyor systems, advanced motion control, effective network architecture, and modern HMI/SCADA systems can improve annual output. 

Additional attributes of a highly connected environment are abundant new data points that can be leveraged for productivity improvements and enhancements.

HMLV production

In applying automation technology solutions to improve HMLV production environments, the impact is greater when considering the plant’s whole manufacturing portfolio, instead of defining it by a single application. A path for your digital-transformation strategy is to develop a framework to automate using the following production model:

• Optimize machinery by grouping part families, i.e., parts requiring similar machining operations, to reduce cycle times. Invest in fewer dedicated machines to handle those parts and automate this area. 

• Create a repeatable, high-quality manufacturing process to eliminate uncertainty. Add value by using automation to minimize unnecessary moving parts. 

• Improve flow by automating and standardizing routines such as part handling, setup, loading, and finishing. It’s important to base your flow definition on what is ideal, not existing software and processes. 

• Prioritize continued automation and flow through all levels of manufacturing. This means assembling all personnel involved, from the enterprise level to the factory floor. Robotic systems and intelligent manufacturing lines employing a variety of PLCs, will connect to “edge” computers, HMI terminals, and SCADA systems. Then they connect to various higher-level software: ERP (enterprise resource planning), MES (manufacturing execution systems), financial systems software, and even CRM (customer relationship management) software.

Consider quality and reliability areas. Product reliability in the field is a top priority and a key selling point. Automation technologies can be deployed to perform predictive analytics and remote maintenance on machinery to increase uptime and limit disruptions to operations. A manufacturer can establish remote access to monitor product health and build predictive models, using field data to optimize the operation while improving maintenance efficiency/effectiveness and ultimately reducing downtime.

Implications of demand volatility

Especially in current times, determining demand can be challenging due to high volatility and unpredictability in production and the supply chain. These challenges affect production planning, inventory management, and staffing decisions. Automation technology, such as IIoT platform connectivity, generates pertinent data-driven demand prediction and provides manufacturing leaders more insight through statistical algorithm models. Connecting production demand forecasts from external data sources to the plant level (either on-premise or in an off-premise data center through cloud connectivity) could allow a manufacturer with software connectivity and algorithms to estimate product demand based on raw materials forecasts.

Managing production variability

High-complexity, low-volume production comprises more product variants, diverse production tasks, and close collaboration between manufacturing, engineering, IT, maintenance, procurement, and sales/marketing groups. In production systems, establishing secure remote access through automation technology connected to IIoT, vision systems, and robotics sets up an environment that allows operators to interact safely while improving decision-making support for resolving complex production variability.

The versatility of various robots (articulated, SCARA, Cartesian, cobots) offers the most appealing benefits for HMLV work. A manufacturer could show customer-specific requirements on displays and robotic operator interfaces, increasing efficiency and better decision-making on production lines. It is also critical to recognize the importance of vision systems and end-of-arm tooling in deploying robots.

Accelerating digital transformation

A significant hurdle in deploying automation technology is determining where it’s most beneficial to deploy systems. HMLV needs flexible optimization to improve all specific production runs, not just one. Manufacturing decision makers can accelerate digital-transformation efforts on their production floors by considering the following points in their implementation efforts:

Have a clear strategy. Manufacturers need to inventory current automation and robotic capabilities. It’s difficult to get up to speed and have the team quickly become technology experts. Align your top team around a clear strategy and include all functional areas and workgroups. 

Measure ROI from your digital-transformation plan, then implement an incentive to capture benefits from fully automating production floors. Use these savings to extend the plant’s digitalization. 

Know your current technical level. Consider building automation muscle by launching a training program focused on deployable technologies. 

Close the technical gap in your leadership team. Build a strong automation team that includes engineering, IT, strategy, and functional production experts who can be available for existing and future implementations. 

Find top opportunities. Manufacturers need to develop a roadmap that identifies opportunities that can be enhanced by digital transformation and inspire plant personnel.

Obtain plant buy-in. Manufacturers should ask production personnel to submit ideas for high-impact automation technology and robotic-solution implementations. Reward contributions and highlight how they help the plant’s digital transformation. 

While these actions are straightforward, they contain the ingredients for a successful digital-transformation journey. However, the real challenge can be carrying the concepts to the factory floor. Tasks vary greatly with HMLV work, creating productivity challenges and overall equipment efficiency. Therefore, it’s important to have an experiential learning approach to your automation technology and robotic deployment for your production floor. 

As you deploy a digital-transformation strategy, take care to weave in integrated operations across production lines to accelerate your automation technology and robotics deployment. Your journey will be filled with many different tasks and equipment to consider automating. However, keep an open mind when choosing the correct solutions to deploy across your plant. Cater to flexibility with automation and manage production bottlenecks with automation technology, robotics, and modern conveyor systems. Challenge production leaders to leverage advanced technology to optimize HMLV environments.

The trends are encouraging for manufacturers looking to deploy automation quickly; the cost of entry is coming down, and the learning curve on these systems is decreasing. This all leads to more opportunities for automation deployment. EP

Aurelio Banda is Motion Ai Senior Vice President at Motion, Birmingham, AL ( with 25 years of experience in automation distribution and manufacturing. His background includes the positions of President and Chief Executive Officer of PHD Inc., President and CEO–North America for Beckhoff Automation, and the owner and CEO of Controls Plus Inc., in Noblesville, IN. Learn more at


Sign up for insights, trends, & developments in
  • Machinery Solutions
  • Maintenance & Reliability Solutions
  • Energy Efficiency
Return to top