We live in a manufactured world. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, $483.1 billion in manufactured goods were sold in the United States in 2021. With the nation recovering from a manufacturing freeze due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the number of new goods produced in the country has steadily been on the incline. As of June 2022, new orders for manufactured goods increased 13 of the last 14 months, with shipments increasing 25 out of the last 26 months.
These goods are being produced by one of five manufacturing processes. These processes use organized systems of machinery, labor, and software to transform raw materials into manufactured goods and components. Almost all manufacturers, from the automotive industry to food manufacturers, use one or more of these processes to produce their goods.
A manufacturing process is simply the recipe used to produce an item commercially. It is the plan that takes into consideration the labor, equipment, and methodology to produce a good and details the means to create the good in a time and cost-efficient manner. Having a manufacturing process allows for consistency in mass production operations. A good produced using a manufacturing process will have predictable costs, yield predictable results, and will be consistent.
Manufacturing is a wealth-producing venture. It is the process of taking relatively inexpensive raw materials and combining them to produce manufactured goods that have a higher value. This creates a profit. A manufacturing process defines what this profit will be by determining the needed labor, processing cost, and material cost needed to produce the goods.
This allows for economies of scale. With an established manufacturing process, the cost to produce a good may reduce as the manufacturer produces more goods. This may occur through purchasing benefits or the ability to buy raw goods at bulk rate or special pricing, managerial benefits through the need of fewer managers to oversee larger production lines, or technological advantages that allows a manufacturer to take advantage of new manufacturing processes.
A well-structured manufacturing process can simplify the production of a good while increasing the good’s profit margin.
Humans have produced goods for the whole of the species’ history. Originally, these goods were handmade and were used personally to make work easier or improve one’s livelihood. Trade introduced the rise of artisans or trained individual manufacturers of goods. As these goods were handmade, ther became a limit on the amount of goods available for trade. These goods were unique items with limited or no interchangeability. Should a component break on such a good, that component would need to be custom-made or the entire good would need to be replaced.
In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution introduced mass production technologies that allowed increased consistency and reduced manufacturing times. A steam engine-powered press, for example, eliminated the need to hire large armies of artisans while introducing consistency from produced part to part. This methodology required the creation of specialized machines that cannot be easily changed. To change the manufacturing process, the equipment would need to be changed at potentially great cost.
In the early 20th century, automotive manufacturers like Ford introduced the assembly line, where a multi-component good – like a car – can be built part-by-part by dedicated machines and laborers that are responsible for producing only one portion of the assembly. This allowed for better labor relations, as a worker only needed to know how to produce and install their own component, instead of the entire good. This also allowed for the quicker production of more complicated goods.
The introduction of computers and robotics have reduced the need for a large number of laborers on the modern assembly line. However, this has created an economic barrier for entry, with capital investment and the need to secure more skilled labor increasing the initial costs for a manufacturer. The efficiency in manufacturing, however, allowed for the production of more complicated goods – such as computers – at a lower cost and at a higher rate of production without compromises in quality.
The most common forms of manufacturing are repetitive manufacturing and discrete manufacturing. Job shop manufacturing, continuous process manufacturing, and batch process manufacturing are also used for specialized processes.
The most common form of mass production is repetitive manufacturing. Repetitive manufacturing is the process where a single product is produced on an assembly line. This produces a process that is predictable and consistent, allowing for high volume production. This tends to allow for the en masse production of simple goods or components.
Automotive components, semiconductors, food products, and durable consumer goods use this type of manufacturing process. This process requires few changes over time but may require an expensive change in infrastructure in order to change the manufacturing plan.
Discrete manufacturing is a take on repetitive manufacturing where the final product may be customized per the order. These changes require shifts in the assembly line configuration, called a changeover. These changes can be expensive regarding labor or equipment costs.
This type of manufacturing allows for the produced good to change according to new product releases or requests for customization. An example of this is a computer manufacturer producing a new model. Electronics and appliances regularly utilize this manufacturing process.
The job shop manufacturing process replaces the assembly line with workstations. The product moves from workstation to workstation, where skilled laborers can add components before moving the product to the next workstation. This is a slower process than assembly line processes but allows for higher customization for individual products.
This process is less dependent on mechanization and more dependent on skilled labor. An example of this is furniture assembly, where one workshop would cut the lumber, another would shape and sand the wood, another would assemble the wood framework and yet another would stain and resin the product. Products that require high customization, like aircraft, final auto assemblies, military equipment, specialized computers, and custom furniture are made this way.
Batch processing is a fundamentally different process from continuous production methods. Instead of producing a single product or model continuously, batch production runs by the needs of the current order. The assembly line is modified for the need of the order, the needed raw material is gathered, and the process runs only until the order is satisfied. The assembly line is then cleaned and modified, if needed, for the next order. If there is no order, the line is left inactive.
An example of this is a beer manufacturer. While one order of beer is being produced, other beer lines may be inactive or used to make other products. Once the order is completed, the line may be modified for other products, like canned water or hard cider.
This type of manufacturing is used to produce foods and pharmaceuticals. This allows for many different products to be mass produced with fewer assembly lines.
Continuous processing is a form of repetitive processing with the exception that the raw material is a form of a fluid (slurries, powders, gases, or liquids). This is an automatic process that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Users of this manufacturing process are energy producers, mass producers of pharmaceuticals, oil refiners, and metal furnaces.
Manufacturing processes are created and refined by manufacturing process engineers. Manufacturing process engineers create the processes based on the needs of the final products and the requirements of the customer, conduct research to improve efficiencies regarding the manufacturing process, and confirm that the final product meets required standards.
Manufacturing process engineers are required to not only set-up new processes, but to ensure that existing processes stay within required parameters. A well-created and maintained manufacturing process is needed to ensure efficiencies in cost, quality, and production time.
The increased use of robotics and computerization will allow for changeovers without the high cost of equipment changes. The future manufacturing processes will be more generalized, with the manufacturing process plan being programmed instead of being physically implemented. This can lead to a lower barrier of entry for new manufacturers and lower cost for new product development.
Known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a recently added manufacturing process where a good or component is built layer by layer. While 3D printing has been used to make plastic goods, it is possible to use 3D printing to make metal products, foods, fabrics, ceramics, and even therapeutic constructs.
3D printers work by breaking a 3D computer model into layers, which a motorized head uses to reproduce. Subsequent layers are fused with heat or are applied before the previous layer has hardened. While the technology is in its infancy, the technology is poised to become a major part of the future manufacturing process.
As computers become smaller, more items – including jewelry, clothing, and packaging – are becoming interconnected via the Internet. This creates the Internet of Things – a connected ecosystem where nearly everything is providing data that can be analyzed. This can lead to smarter homes, better wearable technologies, and new ways to live and work.
This Internet of Things will extend to manufacturing. Integrated sensors will advise supervising computers how machinery is operating and if an error occurs, reducing down-times and improving manufacturing optimization.
The growth of automation and artificial intelligence has created a situation that many manufacturing processes no longer require laborers or supervisors. This will lead to dark factories, or manufacturing lines that have no human participation. Such a manufacturing line will effectively eliminate labor costs, lowering the cost to produce goods while increasing productivity.