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Agile Manufacturing in Action

Learn how we built a Pop-up Factory in 24 hours with Formlabs, Vention, RightHand Robotics, AWS, and The Public Radio.

Introduction

Being able to move fast and be agile is increasingly becoming a strategic advantage for manufacturers in a world where change is the only constant and competition is as fierce as ever. To illustrate how emerging digital technologies let manufacturers move faster than ever before, we decided to put together a “pop-up factory” with Formlabs, Vention, RightHand Robotics, AWS, leaders in digital manufacturing technology.

Staged during the Digital Factory Conference in Boston, the pop-up Factory was both a working factory and an experiential demo that allowed attendees experience for themselves some of the emerging digital manufacturing technologies by letting them design, customize, and build a single-station mason jar radio they could then take home with them.

Even though we know no manufacturer ever needs to build or operate a factory in such a compressed period of time, especially if the factory will only be running for 2 days, our goal with the pop up was to illustrate just how fast and agile you can be when you leverage the latest digital manufacturing technologies.

This case study offers an exclusive behind the scenes look at how we pulled the pop-up factory off. If you want to see how you can leverage these emerging technologies on your own operation, read on.

Tulip's pop-up factory at a conference
The Popup Factory built at the Digital Factory Conference in Boston

Chapter One: Selecting the Gadget for the Pop-Up Factory

The first thing we had to decide was the widget our pop-up factory would be producing. As we thought of a gadget for the factory, we had to consider several constraints:

  • First, it needed to be something cool and small, so there would be demand from attendees who would want to build it and be able to take it home.
  • Second, it had to be something relatively easy to put together, so we could ensure short enough cycle times for all attendees to go through the process.
  • Third, it needed to be affordable, so we could make sure we had enough for everyone.

We ended up choosing The Public Radio’s mason jar radio, created by Spencer Wright, the curator behind The Prepared, a great resource for manufacturing nerds like us.


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Components for building the radio, including 3D-printed knobs.

In addition to checking all the boxes, it was originally brought to life as a Kickstarter project.

Since these are usually delayed due to manufacturing issues, we thought it would be fitting to show how fast those products could be delivered if they leveraged digital manufacturing.

Furthermore, The Public Radio is built by a contract manufacturer who uses Tulip to fulfill the orders as they come through the project’s e-commerce site, so we thought it would be a fitting use case.

Despite being based on a simple product--though by no means trivial--the lessons of the pop-up factory apply to manufacturers of all sizes and complexity. If you’d like to learn more about other use cases, check out our case studies page.

Chapter Two: Enabling Customization at Scale with Formlabs’ 3D Printing

The radio was a great product on its own, but to illustrate the power of mass customization, we made some adjustments on its design. Namely, we designed different knobs so Digital Factory attendees could customize their radios’ physical appearance. We leveraged 3D printing to produce them at scale.

The original knob that comes with The Public Radio is a classic machined-part geometry: a revolved cylinder with chamfers and a knurled texture for grip. The machined knob is held in place on the potentiometer d-shaft with a set screw.

When it came time to redesign the knobs for 3D printing, we knew we wanted or needed to change up a few things to make it work for the build process. First, we wanted to remove the need for a set screw, which would slow down cycle times, and instead move to a press-on design that could assemble with hand pressure.

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3D printing station for printing radio parts

At the same time, we wanted to provide a range of cosmetic and ergonomic options for the knob. The best way to do this was to leverage the unique properties of two different resin chemistries: Durable Resin and Color Kit Resin.

As part of Formlabs engineering resins lineup, Durable Resin provides the necessary compliance for two key features of the knobs: a series of internal ribs compliant enough for easy press-on installation, and an annular snap-fit that attaches the Color Kit exterior to the Durable interior. Color Kit provides the flexibility to create a huge range of custom colors with great surface finish and fine details that you would expect from a finished consumer product.

By producing the knobs with 3D printing just-in-time, we can use the insights gathered by Tulip’s dashboard to feed back into production and adjust printer-to-printer output to better match demand and reduce wasted time and material.

In addition to the knobs, we wanted to add a nice touch to the radios to make them extra special for the pop-up factory. To do this, we laser printed the conference’s logo on the lid and designed some custom boxes attendees could use to pack and take the radios with them.

Chapter Three: Designing the Operations

Once we decided the product we were going to be producing at the pop-up factory, we had to design our production line. To do this, we took into account several factors:

  1. First, the line should be designed in a way that let all conference attendees go through the process. This was not a trivial consideration. There were over 1000 attendees at the Digital Factory Conference, and we were expecting at least 600 of them to go through the pop-up factory experience in a period of 8 hours.

  2. Second, we had to take into account the physical space available at the conference.

  3. Lastly, we had to minimize the cost of the final production design.

Since each attendee would be making his/her radio, we had a just-in-time production by definition. The assembly process for the radios can be split into the following steps:

  1. Design a customized radio: Select the knob and station you want to have

  2. Program the PCB for the radio

  3. Assemble the radio

  4. Package the radio

We also evaluated doing an assembly line, where people would take their workpiece along different stations, doing different steps of the assembly in different workstations. However, as we modeled this idea, it became clear that if we had each assembly step on a different station, those stations with “harder” steps would become bottlenecks.

Therefore, we opted out to split the production process into 3 stations:

  1. Work order station: Create a work order by designing the radio, choosing from the knob options and selecting the right radio station

  2. Program and assembly station: Program and assemble your radio

  3. Packaging station: Get a box for packing the radio

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A view of the digital factory

Chapter Four: Designing the Line with Vention’s Self-Serve Workstations

Taking into consideration cycle times for the design, programming and assembly stations, we found that having 4 workstations in each step would be enough to ensure everyone could build their radios.

We now had to design the workstations to support our assembly line, each with a different requirement:

  • The work order stations needed to have space for a touchscreen, a printer, and keyboard.

  • The assembly station needed to have a surface to program the radios, assemble them, as well as all the parts for the radio.

  • The packaging station needed to support Righthand Robotics bot and have space for the boxes.

To bring these stations to life, we used Vention’s MachineBuilder platform to design the benches according to our needs.

Using Vention’s 3D machine design system made it very easy to design custom benches that fit our needs.

The platform has neat collaboration features that let our team collaborate in the design of the benches.

Furthermore, Vention’s applications engineers were extremely helpful throughout the process, answering our questions through the in-product chat, so we could move faster.

The killer feature of Vention is turnover time - after we finished the design of the bench, all the parts were delivered within 3 days. This speed is unheard of in the space.

Once we received the parts, putting the workstations together was straightforward.

Designing the self-serve Vention Workstation

Chapter Five: Running Production with Tulip’s No-Code Apps

To tie everything together and run operations, we used Tulip’s manufacturing app platform.

Since Tulip is a no-code platform, you don’t need to know a programming language to create these apps or integrate them with your IoT, and you can move way faster than if you had to create these systems from scratch.

The main apps running the operations were:

  1. Work order app: This app lets people create work orders with customized radios.

  2. Assembly app: This app guides the assembly process of the radio based on the work order, showing the right work instructions for the custom radio.

  1. Inventory tracking app: This app let us monitor inventory across the operation, alerting operators when re-stocking was necessary at each station and preventing the creation of work orders for which BOM had run out.

  2. Machine Monitoring: We had two machine monitoring apps. One was monitoring the Formlabs print farm, just like they do in real-life. This let us see part status, OEE and OPE. The other app provided a HMI for RightHand Robotics’ bot to let people interact with it.

Work Order Tracking App

Operational goal

We needed to let attendees customize their radios and keep track of their designs so we could provide the right assembly instructions, and ensure we had enough inventory for them to build their designs. Furthermore, they had to be able to revise their designs and go through the process fairly fast so that we wouldn’t have queues of attendees.

App description

To achieve the operational goal, we created an app that let attendees design their radios and create work orders for their individual designs. Using the app, attendees could select the radio station (bear in mind these are single station radios) and choose a knob design. To ensure we had enough knob inventory to fulfill the attendees order, the app checked inventory levels on an inventory database.

To make the process faster later on, we leveraged Tulip’s IoT capabilities and included a printer from our device ecosystem. This printer gave users a sticker with a QR code attendees could scan at the assembly station to pull their work order information from the database. Since each radio was designed and built to order by attendees themselves, the work orders included their personal information. All this information was stored in Tulip Tables, so they could be accessed from the assembly stations and show attendees step-by-step instructions to assemble them.

Features - App steps and how we built it

The app consists of the following steps:

  1. Overview of process: Explain to attendees what the app does.

  2. Personal information: Capture personal info from attendees, to match with their design.

  3. Pick knob: Select knob from available designs and uses Tulip triggers to dynamically check if there are enough knobs in inventory.

  4. Select the radio station: Type the station you want to synchronize to, leveraging Tulip’s form capabilities (you can add drop-downs, checklists, booleans, etc).

  5. Verify order: Check the details of the work order and edit something if there is an error.

  6. Print: Print a QR code with the work order ID using a trigger to connect to IoT device from our device ecosystem.

As users interact with the app, the data gets stored on a Tulip Table, which is later called by the assembly app as we see next.

Work order apps in your operations

This app is a great example of how you can use Tulip to create and manage your work orders as they go through production. The app lets you collect data on how many work orders you have in queue, and you can use data from the assembly app to see if you are on track to reaching your production goals or not. Manufacturers who already have an ERP to keep track of work orders can easily integrate it with Tulip to connect with the other apps in production through Tulip connectors.

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A user creating a work order
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Screens from the radio assembly app

Radio Assembly App

Operational goal

We needed a way to let over 700 attendees build their own customized radios, without any prior experience doing so. Furthermore, we needed to minimize their cycle time so that everyone would be able to build their own app. Finally, we had to ensure the highest quality on every radio built.

App description

To meet our goal, we built an app that provided detailed instructions of every step in the assembly process. These steps dynamically changed based on the design the attendee had created for their radio, and leveraged IoT to bring quality in-line. To speed up the development, we leveraged the existing Work Instructions app from our app library and customize it for our needs.

Features - App steps and how we built it

The app consists of the following steps:

  1. Scan work order: When users scan the QR code of their work order, the app fetches the work order information from the Tulip table in which it was stored on the ‘work order app’ (see above). This step uses Tulip triggers to connect to the barcode scanner and look up the information in the work order table.

  2. Verify work order: The second step lets users check if the work order info is correct. If they find a mistake or want to make a modification, they can do so. Otherwise, they can continue to the next step to begin the assembly.

  3. Program the radio. There were several steps associated with this task. First, users scan the QR code on the radio. If it hasn’t been programmed, it associates it with their work order and guides them through the programming on the radio, which consists on placing the radio on a programming jig we designed. When the jig’s clamp was closed, the sensor activated the programming function by connecting through Tulip’s I/O gateway and using triggers.

  4. Attach knob. Using Tulip’s light kit, we showed user which knob to pick based on his or her design, by lighting the right bin.

  5. Finish assembly. Guide users how to finish the assembly with videos and other media.

  6. Quality check. As a final step in the process, we used a scale to provide a last quality check. Users are instructed to place the radio on a scale. This scale checks that the weight is the expected weight before letting users finish the process. If, for example, they forgot to add batteries or an antenna, the app would dynamically guide them to fix it.

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Building the radio assembly app in Tulip

Since the programming of the radio is the most “complex” step in the process, we created a programming jig with a proximity sensor and used Tulip’s IoT triggers to activate the programming process when the clamp on the jig was closed. Using this let us poka-yoke, or error proof, this step.

Assembly App Beyond the Pop-Up Factory

The assembly app is an example of how you can use Tulip to build interactive work instructions that leverage IoT to reduce quality defects and increase operator productivity. By displaying work instructions that are dynamic and show the right information at the right time, your team can learn new assemblies and skills faster. Furthermore, you can use similar apps to guide other operator processes in the shop floor, from kitting operations to lean SOPs (such as a 5S audit, gemba walk, and so on), to shipping operations.

Inventory App

Operational Challenge

The bill of materials (BOM) for each radio has five parts, and we had enough inventory to make 700 radios. In addition to this, we had 3 different knob designs and 300 parts for each to accommodate variable demand for each design. Given the volume of parts, we needed a way to manage all the inventory and make sure the benches had enough parts at all time. Furthermore, we needed a way to ensure that users couldn’t create work orders with parts that were no longer available in inventory.

App Description

To achieve this, we created an inventory management app, that had a database of all the parts in stock, as well as in use and scrap.

When a work order was created, the app would change inventory status as WIP and when the radio was completed, the app would deduct the inventory. Furthermore, the app was constantly checking inventory levels. If they went below a certain threshold, the app would send an SMS and Email to a supervisor to ensure the inventory was restocked.

Features - App steps and How We Built It

The app consists of the following steps:

  1. For each piece in the BOM, the user specifies how many parts have been stocked per assembly station

  2. Then every time radio is assembled, the app updates the inventory database per station, to keep track of how many parts are left

  3. When the inventory levels go below a user-specified threshold, the app sends a message to the person in charge of inventory for he or she to restock the bench

  4. To send the message, we leveraged Tulip’s triggers, which let you email or send SMS based on app events (in this case, inventory levels reaching below a certain threshold).

Inventory App Beyond the Pop-Up Factory
This app and the work order app, effectively acted as our pop-up factory’s ERP system. SMB manufacturers without an ERP can leverage Tulip to build systems like these to handle their inventory. But if they already have an ERP, they can easily connect it to Tulip using connectors.

Machine Monitoring Apps

Operational Challenge

We needed a way to monitor Formlabs printers as they made over 700 knob parts throughout the day. The supervisor needed a way to monitor all printers without having to be physically present and ensure the right OEE and OPE.

App Description

The Formlabs machine monitoring app connects to the new Formlabs Form 3’s using the Formlabs API to monitor machine state. It uses Tulip visualization widgets as well as Tulip machine attributes to increase operator visibility into the realtime state of each machine running on the shop floor.

Implications

This app is based on an actual app Formlabs uses to monitor their sample parts print farm. Beyond 3D printers, you can use Tulip to monitor all kinds of machines, from CNCs to Lathes. Tulip apps can connect to OPC-UA, MTConnect, Modbus, and other machine communication protocols. Unlike traditional machine monitoring, using Tulip apps can help you reduce downtime by ensuring maintenance is provided in a speedy manner and at the right time. Additionally, machine monitoring with Tulip gives process engineers visibility into the reasons for machine downtime, by cross-referencing operator inputs with machine states - something traditional machine monitoring solutions fail to do.

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Chapter Six: Enabling Automation with Righthand Robotics Bots

Enabling Automation with Righthand Robotics Bots

The final step of the operation was a packaging station, powered by RightHand Robotics.

Through a Tulip app that acted as an HMI for RightHand Robotics’ bot, attendees could get the bot to hand them a box for them to take their radios home. The bot was activated through a Tulip app using a trigger that sent an impulse to the robotic arm using Tulip’s GPIO slots.

Putting it All Together

We only gained access to the Digital Factory space the day before the conference, so we had to make sure our execution was flawless.

Building the benches from Vention was as easy as putting together Ikea furniture - you don’t need to be highly skilled to do it. The assembly workstations took about 4 hours each to assemble and the work order stations took about 2 hours each, but they definitely got easier to do as we got the hang of it.

In addition to building the benches, we had to add Tulip hardware to the stations to enable IoT capabilities.

In particular, each station had a Tulip I/O Gateway, a Tulip Light Kit to guide the picking, a programing jig we made, and two monitors to show assembly instructions and analytics.

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Members of the Tulip team hard at work setting up the Pop-Up Factory.

Adding this hardware to the benches and making it look good took about 2 additional hours per bench.

The work order benches were even more straightforward. They just had a monitor, keyboard, and printer for the QR codes.

With all the stations ready, we now had to set up the assembly lines and dashboards, on the conference space. This proved to be challenging given the venue didn’t provide power until about 7pm day before the event, giving us only a couple of hours to integrate all the parts and make sure everything was working properly together.

Though it took a lot of hard work well into the night, the team managed to execute flawlessly and the pop-up factory was ready for prime-time at 8am the next day.

Chapter Seven: Scaling the Pop-Up Factory - The Power of AWS Cloud

All the many technologies leveraged to build the Pop-up factory have one thing in common: they all run on AWS cloud (in fact, Tulip is an AWS Industrial Competency Partner).

Running on the cloud makes the pop-up factory scalable. If we wanted to add more stations or reduce their number, we could easily do so. This flexibility lets you run your systems like you run your factory - with minimal (server) waste.

Furthermore, running on the cloud reduces the initial investment needed to get the system off the ground.

Though manufacturing has been late to the cloud revolution, factories around the world are realizing that running on the cloud is a strategic imperative for their operations.

Chapter Eight: Production Visibility: A Look at the Pop-Up Factory with Tulip Dashboards

One of the main benefits of running your operations with Tulip apps is you can get real-time production visibility. Tulip makes it very easy to create reports, aggregate them in dashboards and share them with your stakeholders.

Attendees had the opportunity to see this first hand through dashboards deployed throughout the event, but below we’re sharing a couple of the highlights along with a link to the actual dashboards.

As the pop-up factory continues to produce parts, you can see these dashboards update in real-time.

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Production - 565 unique work orders were created and 500 radios assembled.

Customization - We had some expectations of which colors would prove most popular, but the two day flurry of manufacturing activity by Digital Factory and User Summit attendees proved us wrong. We had guessed blue would be the most popular, followed by red-orange and finally yellow, but red-orange proved to be the crowd favorite by almost 2:1. By producing the knobs with 3D printing just-in-time, we can use the insights gathered by Tulip’s dashboard to feed back into production and adjust printer-to-printer output to better match demand and reduce wasted time and material. We created a pareto chart to see what was the popular knob design.

We also created a report to see which radio stations where the most popular with attendees. NPR was the most popular, followed by classic rock as can be seen below.

Time studies - On average, people took 5 minutes to make their radios. The steps that took longer where attaching the knobs to the radio and attaching the radio to the mason jar (around twenty seconds each). Knowing this, lets us identify the bottlenecks in the process and easily update them to have better cycle times in the future. See report here.

We can view production by work order to see the variance at each step of the assembly process and compare it to our target cycle times at each step. In a real production environment, we can use this to identify who is above or below our target cycle times. With this information we can coach under performers to get back to their cycle times. We can also see what over performers are doing differently and use that knowledge to get everyone to perform better. Seeing that most people didn’t hit the target cycle time, we may decide to calibrate them in the future.

Production schedule - We created a report to see radio production by time of day. It seems like 8am and 3pm where the rush times.


Defect counts - We only had 6 defects reported throughout the day. The neat thing about reporting defects with Tulip is you can see them live, inspect the root cause and test if it fixes it with real-time data.

Chapter Nine: Leveraging Digital Manufacturing to be Agile

No manufacturing operation is expected to introduce a product, design and build a factory in 24 hours (especially if it only runs for 2 days). However, to stay competitive in the modern economy, manufacturers around the world need to be able to move faster than their competitors - introduce faster products to market, improve faster, iterate faster.

In short - manufacturers need to be agile.

The pop-up factory illustrates how you can leverage emerging digital technologies such as manufacturing apps, additive manufacturing, IoT, cobots, and self-serve workstations to achieve the agility you need to move faster than your competition.

Embracing agile manufacturing technologies lets manufacturers gain several advantages, as we illustrated above.

To re-cap, agile manufacturing technologies can help your operations achieve:

Faster product development and new product introduction (NPI)

Leveraging product lifecycle management technologies to design, prototype and iterate on new products, lets manufacturers develop products much faster than ever before. Using computer aided design (CAD) and additive manufacturing technologies such as desktop 3D printers like Formlabs’ let teams iterate over prototypes much faster and cheaper than ever before. Furthermore, using digital tools to design operations, from the workstations, to the automation, to the execution software, lets manufacturers go from conception to execution much faster.

Faster operators, supervisors and teams

Using agile technologies to drive production, lets teams run faster. Operators using apps to guide the various workflows they need to perform can be more productive as they have the right information at the right time, and they can receive real-time feedback from their devices and supervisors. Furthermore, they can gain new skills on the job and receive faster training. At the same time, their supervisors and managers can identify issues faster than before thanks to a real-time view of their factory afforded by these agile technologies.

Faster quality, defect detection and continuous improvement

Agile Manufacturing technologies let bring quality in-line, so you don’t have to wait until a process is done to audit it. Leveraging IoT and apps, you can ensure your team gets it right first time.

For example, in the pop-up factory, we achieved this using a proximity sensor to error-proof the programming of the radio, Tulip’s light kit to help attendees pick the correct knob for their design and a scale at the end of the process to ensure all parts had been added. Having real-time data also has the added benefit of letting supervisors detect and solve issues faster. Finally, being able to change workflows by changing the apps, lets teams experiment faster. In the pop up factory, we “A/B tested” the work instructions app throughout the day to improve cycle times.

Faster IT and OT

Agile Manufacturing technologies help IT and OT teams work faster and better together. Creating a system like the one we built for the pop-up factory from scratch without the help of no-code platforms like Tulip, self-serve platforms like Vention, and the cloud, would have been simply impossible in such a short time frame.

Using these technologies in production lets IT and OT teams deliver more value to their stakeholders, continuously improve their systems much faster, and empower end-users to build their own tools, without loosing the business continuity in the app creation process and the control they need to ensure safety in their factories. Simply put, it lets manufacturers bring lean to their systems.

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If you had the opportunity to experience the pop-up factory or if what you’ve read here sound interesting, getting started is easy. Below are options for everyone:

Want to try out Tulip? Start a free trial. In less than a week, you’ll be able to customize or build apps to tackle the unique challenges of your shop floor.

Ready to leverage IoT? Get a Factory Kit. It includes a subscription to Tulip, along with all the sensors we used to put together the pop-up factory and a couple others (such as a humidity and temperature sensors, foot pedal, and more).

Want to bring the pop-up factory to your organization? Get in touch. You can get the workstations we designed for the pop-up factory, including the hardware and software running the operation.

If you have any other questions, we’re here to help.