Light-Directed Assembly for Manufacturing
Pick-to-light is frequently associated with order fulfillment, but may be even better for assembly
The advantages of pick-to-light for order fulfillment are well-documented: you can pick faster and more accurately without the burden of tickets or voice-activated systems. Your workforce can be trained in a fraction of the time, in a “fast food” type experience. It’s a technology that has found broader applications in many distribution centers simply because it’s a fast, easy way to improve.
Light-directed systems may have a more positive impact on assembly than they do on order picking.
“Like a video game”
The same principles that make light-directed technology so good for distribution are in play for manufacturing. Functions like error-proofing, parts selection, kitting, sortation, line sequencing, parts replenishment, and parts supermarket are all ideal for this type of automation. Because it directs assembly employees to the right parts, in the right sequence, in the right quantity, it’s excellent for assembly processes. This works chiefly because in manufacturing/assembly, reducing complexity almost always results in a better process.
Lights are mounted on bin shelving, workstations, flow racks or other storage media point operators to the right parts and sequences. Operators are directed to the right part, in the right order, in the right quantities to pick. This can be dramatically effective for progressive assembly. It’s perhaps strongest where customized assembly might be challenging to employees who rely on tickets or job boards to assemble components. An image viewer can actually load images and instructions that help people assemble the order correctly.
The next generation of manufacturing employees is accustomed to this type of instruction in a near “game” experience. The key to it all is that it reduces the amount of skill and training required for assembly employees. You can focus more on skills, less on interpreting tickets or instructions about a particular order.
Because of its innate complexity, assembly processes can be particularly good candidates for this technology. Some potential gains include:
- Error and mistake reduction
- Creating prototypes easier and faster
- Reduced product defects
- Slash rework and material waste rates
- Reduce training curve and increase labor flexibility
A system that supports lean operations
Lean manufacturing is a natural setting for “build to light” operations. Both systems focus on simplification and delivering parts on time, in the right quantities, to the right work area. This should result in straighter, less complex manufacturing processes that help reduce defects and re-work while they increase process efficiency.
Most kitting operations are manual today – in an age of scarcer, more expensive labor. We perform kitting with a manual ticket, or in some cases RF scanners. Since kitting affects all downstream processes, it makes sense to focus on technological improvements on it. Light-directed systems are based on making the complex simple, so their ability to improve productivity and enhance accuracy is critical.
Most pick-to-light applications involve integration into WMS/WCS or other systems. But it’s possible for work cells to be driven as independent, standalone areas controlled by the pick to light system.
Common devices and interfaces
- Alphanumeric message displays: The display provides operators with job numbers, process steps, iteration status, and instructions.
- Barcode reader interface: A basic radio-frequency (RF) scanners treads barcode labeled bills of materials or recipes contained in the database in order to launch a light-directed assembly or kitting process.
- Sensor Interface Module: a single-point digital input/output (I/O) interface that supports light curtain or light matrix sensor units.
Does it fit your application?
The answer always depends on your application. Some relevant questions to ask yourself include:
- How many workstations do I currently operate?
- What media am I picking from? Where am I picking to?
- Can I meet demand with those configurations? Will I need to add people or shifts?
- Is speed/throughput a constant issue?
- Do I have concerns with labor availability/skill levels?
- Does my technology (WMS) mesh with available solutions?
- Can I deliver the right parts to assembly, in the right quantities, in the right sequence?
- Can my assembly teams make sense of their processes?
- Are new employees difficult to train and develop?
- Can I reduce costs and increase margins without sacrificing quality?
There are many other questions, and the answers aren’t always obvious. We can help you through the process of making your assembly operations faster and more efficient. Contact us for more assistance.
Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Marketing Director with three decades of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. He writes on automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations.