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One of the most revolutionary concepts of machining processes to emerge in the last decade has
been the concept of Flexible Manufacturing Processes. It is a concept of machining where a set of
machine tools can be used to perform a wide range of machining operations to produce a variety
of products. This dynamic nature of the machine tools can be achieved by developing a
combination of hardware and software components. The paper attempts to explain why such a
process of machining is the needed at this point in time. It gives details about the various hardware
and software components of this process and how each of them work in co-ordination with each
other. The paper also explains how flexible manufacturing processes can be designed to suit the
production of robotic components. Once the process has been designed, the paper also tells us how
to go about implementing this process right from acquiring the required components to beginning
production on the system.

Since the inception of civilization, man has been continuously trying to ease and enhance his work
by developing better tools. This process began with the creation of stone and wooden tools and
improved into a totally automated industry. This industry would be able to do all the things
associated with a product, right from designing it to packaging. Since the human operator tends to
be the weakest link in the chain of production, the need for automation has been important
throughout the industry. A Flexible Manufacturing Process is a part of this process and a step
towards complete automation of the factory. This is a form of flexible automation in which several
machine tools are linked together by a material-handling system, and all parts of the system are
controlled by a central controller (usually a computer).
It is a collection of production equipment logically organized under a host computer and physically
connected by a central transport system.
It is a group of manufacturing cells linked by an automatic material handling system and a central
computer. It is able to manufacture a mix of piece-part types while being flexible enough to
sequentially manufacture different piece-part type mixes without costly, time-consuming,
changeover requirement. It is a medium size batch production system. The parts requiring the same
machining operation is sent to the appropriate machine tools irrespective of the type of part.


Flexible manufacturing systems are classified by different ways i.e. process, product variety,
number of machine cells, level of flexibility, etc.
1. Number of machine cells
Flexible manufacturing systems can be distinguished according to the number of machines in the
system. The following are the typical categories.
a) Single machine cell: A Single Machine Cell (SMC) consists of one CNC machining center
combined with a parts storage system for unattended operation. Completed parts are
periodically unloaded from the part storage unit, and raw work-parts are loaded into it. The
cell can be designed to operate in either a batch mode or a flexible mode or in combinations of
the two.
b) Flexible manufacturing cell: A Flexible Manufacturing Cell (FMC) consists of 2 or 3
processing workstations (typically CNC machining centers or turning centers) plus a part
handling system. The part handling system is connected to a load/unload station. In addition,
the handling system usually includes a limited parts storage capacity.
c) Flexible manufacturing system: This has 4 or more processing workstations connected
mechanically by a common parts handling system and electronically by a distributed computer
system. Thus, an important distinction between an FMS and an FMC is the number of
machines: an FMC has two or three machines, while an FMS has four or more. A second
difference is that the FMS generally includes non-processing workstations that support
production but do not directly participate in it. These other stations include part/pallet washing
stations, coordinate measuring machines and so on. A third difference is that the computer
control system of an FMS is generally larger and more sophisticated, often including functions
not always found in a cell, such as diagnostics and tool monitoring. These additional functions
are needed more in an FMS because the FMS is more complex.
2. Level of flexibility:
Another classification of FMS is made according to the level of flexibility associated with the
system. Two categories are distinguished here: Annual production, Flexibility, Cost incurred.
Single machine cell Flexible manufacturing system Flexible manufacturing cell Number of
machines Production rate annual volume
I. Dedicated FMS. It is designed to produce a particular variety of part styles. The product
design is considered fixed. So, the system can be designed with a certain amount of process
specialization to make the operation more efficient.

II. Random order FMS. It is able to handle the substantial variations in part configurations.
To accommodate these variations, a random order FMS must be more flexible than the
dedicated FMS. A random order FMS is capable of processing parts that have a higher
degree of complexity. Thus, to deal with these kinds of complexity, sophisticated
computer control system is used for this FMS type.

As indicated in our definition, there are several basic components of an FMS. In the following
segment, a framework for understanding the components of an FMS is presented. A flexible
manufacturing system consists of two subsystems:

 Physical subsystem
 Control subsystem

Physical subsystem includes the following elements

1. Workstations. It consists of NC machines, machine-tools, inspection equipment,
loading and unloading operation, and machining area.

2. Storage-retrieval systems. It acts as a buffer during WIP (work-in-processes) and

holds devices such as carousels used to store parts temporarily between work stations
or operations.

3. Material handling systems. It consists of power vehicles, conveyers, automated

guided vehicles (AGVs), and other systems to carry parts between workstations.

Control subsystem comprises of following elements:

1. Control hardware. It consists of mini and microcomputers, programmable logic

controllers, communication networks, switching devices and others peripheral devices
such as printers and mass storage memory equipment to enhance the working capability
of the FMS systems.

2. Control software. It is a set of files and programs that are used to control the physical
subsystems. The efficiency of FMS totally depends upon the compatibility of control
hardware and control software.


Components of a flexible manufacturing process can be broadly classified into two categories –
hardware and software.

Hardware: the hardware component basically consists of machine tools and handling systems. It
incorporates the following equipment:
 Machine tools e.g., universal machining centers, turning centers, drilling machines etc.
 Host computer.
 Load/unload station.
 Guided vehicles e.g., wire-guided trolley shuttle, over-head conveyor etc.
 Robots.
 Washing statin.
 Tool Room
 Swarf disposal system.

Software: software for flexible manufacturing processes can be divided into two broad categories
– extrinsic functions and intrinsic functions.
Software for the extrinsic functions is used to plan and control the functions that take place outside
the physical boundaries of the process.
Software for the intrinsic functions is used to load and control the components within the physical
boundaries of the process.

Extrinsic function incorporates the following operations:

 Product scheduling
 Process planning
 Tool management
 Maintenance planning

Intrinsic functions incorporate the following operations:

 Production control
 Production monitoring/ reporting
 Machine. Process control
 Machine diagnostic

The basic components of a robot system are:

1. The mechanical linkage
2. Actuators and transmissions
3. Sensors
4. Controllers
5. User interface
6. Power conversion unit

1. The mechanical linkage
The manipulator consists of a set of rigid links connected by joints. The joints are typically Rotary
or sliding. The last link or the most distal link is called the end effectors because it is this link to
which a gripper or a tool is attached. Sometimes one distinguishes between this last link and the
end effectors that are mounted to this link at the tool mounting plate or the tool flange
The manipulator can generally be divided into a regional structure and an orientation structure.
The regional structure generally consists of the joints (and the links between them) whose main
function is the positioning of the manipulator end effectors. These are generally the proximal
joints. The remaining distal joints are mainly responsible for orienting the end effectors. The
different ways a manipulator linkage can move is called its degrees of freedom.

2. Actuators and Transmissions:

An Actuator is a device that makes freedom possible. The basic form of actuator is an electric
motor. The various electric motors used are:
1. Stepper Motors: They are used to control the arms of robots.
2. Servo Motors: They are used to control the wheels of Robots. They use PWM technique for
speed control.
The actuators are typically linear or rotary actuators. Also they may be electric, pneumatic
or hydraulic. Typically, electric actuators or motors are better suited to high-speed, low load
applications while hydraulic actuators do better at low speed and high load applications. Pneumatic
actuators are like hydraulic actuators except that they are generally not used for high payload.
Transmissions are elements between the actuators and the joints of the mechanical linkage.

3. Sensors
The control of a manipulator or industrial robot is based on the correct interpretation of sensory
information. This information can be obtained either internally to the robot (for example, joint
positions and motor torque) or externally using a wide range of sensors.

4. Controllers:
The controller provides the intelligence that is necessary to control the manipulator system. It looks
at the sensory information and computes the control commands that must be sent to the actuators
to carry out the specified task. Controller
It generally includes
• Memory to store the control program and the state of the robot system obtained from the
• A computational unit (CPU) that computes the control commands.
• The appropriate hardware to interface with the external world (sensors and actuators).
• The hardware for a user interface.

5. The user interface

This interface allows use a human operator to monitor or control the operation of the robot. It must
have a display that shows the status of the system. It must also have an input device that allows
the human to enter commands to the robot. The user interface may be a personal computer with
the appropriate software or a teach pendant.

6. The power conversion unit

The power conversion unit takes the commands issued by the controller which may be low power
and even digital signals and converts them into high power analog signals that can be used to drive
the actuators. For example, for an electric actuator, this power conversion unit may consist of a
digital to analog converter and an amplifier with a power supply. For a pneumatic actuator, this
may consist of a compressor, the appropriate servo valves for regulating the flow of air, an
amplifier and a digital to analog converter. For a hydraulic robot, you will have a pump and a
cooler instead of compressor
Flexible manufacturing systems can be divided into various types depending upon their features.
They are all discussed below:
1. Depending Upon Kinds of Operation
Flexible manufacturing system can be distinguished depending upon the kinds of operation they
I. Processing operation. Such operation transforms a work material from one state to
another moving towards the final desired part or product. It adds value by changing the
geometry, properties or appearance of the starting materials.
Manipulators are made of different links, which are combined at different manufacturing
stages to make the final completed component. The processing operation of a flexible
manufacturing system can be used to make manipulators.

II. Assembly operation. It involves joining of two or more components to create a new
entity which is called an assembly/subassembly. Permanent joining processes include
welding, brazing, soldering, adhesive bonding, rivets, press fitting, and expansion fits.
The controller of a robot often has electronic components which are put together using the
above method examples, hence, controllers can be produced by assembly operations of an


I. Dedicated Flexible Manufacturing System: Sensors mainly have a sole purpose which
is to sense a particular physical quantity, hence they can be produced using dedicated FMS
to produce a particular variety of part styles. The product design is considered to be fixed.
So, the system can be designed with a certain amount of process specialization to make
the operation more efficient.


I. Flexible Manufacturing System: It has four or more processing workstations (typically

CNC machining centers or turning centers) connected mechanically by a common part
handling system and automatically by a distributed computer system.
Actuators and end effectors can be produced from CNC operations.
A flexible manufacturing process encompasses a system where a high degree of flexibility in the
machining process is achieved with the help of software controlling the hardware. The first step in
the production of the robotic component is scheduling the production. The flexibility in this
process is achieved by proper scheduling of the production process through the help of a
production scheduling software. A variety of computer-based scheduling methods can be used in
production. In order to prepare an ideal scheduling process, certain inputs are required by the
software. These data include: part data. pallet data, program data and machine data.
It selects the optimal method based on the production objectives, available resources and the
economic considerations to select the batch size. It determines the allocation of part to machines
depending upon the operation to be performed, the availability of the machines and priority.
Once the scheduling operation is complete, the process planning software takes over. It determines
the type of manufacturing that the work-piece has to undergo to be converted into a finished
product. It does so by retrieving specific information from the central database, and considering
machine tool capabilities and tooling.
After the type of machining operation to be performed on a work-piece is decided, the tool
management software selects the appropriate tool to be supplied to the machining centers. It does
so by taking into consideration the tooling status and inventory records and a tool replacement
strategy. Proper interfacing should be provided between this three software.
Once the scheduling and process planning stages are completed, the manufacturing of the work-
piece actually starts. After the machining is completed on one machine, a guided vehicle (G.V.)
takes it to the next machining center, if required, for further processing of the work-piece. In this
way, the G.V.s transport the work-piece from machine to machine till it is transformed in to the
finished product. At regular interval intervals of time, the machining operation stops, allowing
probes to come out and measure the dimensions of the work-piece being operated on. This product
is taken to the washing center for cleaning and then to the inspection station for checking the

One of the characteristics of a flexible manufacturing process is that a machine tool can work in
various modes depending upon the requirements of the user. These are:
 Automatic mode: this is the normal mode of operation of the machine tool when part of
the system.

 D.N.C. mode: In this mode any operation can be initiated at N.C.’s panel without being
watched by the host.
 Maintenance mode: This mode is used when maintenance is planned for a machine. The
machine is also put in this mode when it is expected to be out of operation for a long period.
 Stand-alone mode: This mode can be used to test the part program of a new piece part
before introducing it in the system. The machine is unsynchronized by the host in this
mode. All the processes carried out by the hardware are being monitored in real-time by
the various intrinsic software(s) loaded on to the Host Computer. Thus the Host Computer
controls the whole system.
CAD software is used to design the robot component and represent it in a solid model. While a
CAM software is used to convert this solid model into part programs incorporating all the
information about the machining operations to be performed on the work-piece. The information
based on which the whole system performs its functions is accessed from the central database
system. The software is supplied Artificial Intelligence capability to be able to take decisions based
on the actions of the system performed till now. The program development should be menu-driven
and have a user-friendly software. The concept of Blueprint Programming is widely used in the
system, which involves the use of data for cutting parameters. Thus the various components of the
process work in co-ordination with each other to create a super machine of a versatile character.



1. Reduction in personnel.
2. Reduction in designing cost of robotic components.
3. Reduction in overall lead time.
4. Reduction in work in process.
5. Gain in overall production.

1. Very high start-up cost.
2. Limited ability to adapt to changes in product or product mix (ex. machines are of
limited capacity and the tooling necessary for products, even of the same family, is
not always feasible in a given FMS)
3. Substantial pre-planning activity
4. Technological problems of exact component positioning and precise timing necessary
to process a component
5. Sophisticated manufacturing systems
Flexible manufacturing processes are now being widely employed to improve productivity and
quality of the robotic components being produced. It also improves the quality of life for the
operator. The new techniques will have a major impact on economic factors. Research must be
carried out in the development of the technical aspects of software and hardware to develop a better
flexible manufacturing system to suit various requirements. Research must also be conducted in
developing a standardization process in certain areas to enable the easier implementation of
flexible manufacturing processes.

Shubhankar, (2009). Flexible Manufacturing Systems (F.M.S): A Whitepaper. [Online] p.8-11.
Available at
Whitepaper [Accessed 15 Oct. 2017].
Samiksha, S. (2015) Components of a robot. [online]. Your Article Library. Available at:
[Accessed 15 Oct. 2017].
Dominic A, (2010). Robotics and Its Applications. [online] Scribd. Available at: [Accessed 23 Oct.
Handbook of flexible manufacturing systems.
Flexible manufacturing system in practice, Roger Bobetto.
Flexible Manufacturing, David Parrish.