The Rise of Microfactories

On Behalf of Mouser Electronics

For decades, the world of manufacturing has been driven primarily by the high-volume and low-mix mindset necessary to enhance efficiency and drive down costs. This has led to over half a century of offshoring to the cheapest markets possible and the world bearing the burden of massive global supply chains and transportation systems. In the 1990s, Japan’s Mechanical Engineer Laboratory (MEL) introduced the microfactory concept, but the idea has largely rested on the shelf of the manufacturing mindset—until recently.

In the past few years, the idea of a microfactory has become increasingly accessible, and demand for the capabilities of microfactories has escalated significantly. There is now the technology, infrastructure, and market demand to build small and agile microfactories that can rapidly respond to customer requirements and customizations while maintaining low overhead, low footprint, and low impact (through sustainability measures and nearshoring).

Is this the coming of age of microfactories? This article explores the origins of the microfactory concept, discusses microfactory features, and posits the future of microfactories.

Beginnings of Microfactories

The origin of the microfactory concept is relatively straightforward. The MEL in Japan had an initiative to reduce the relative size, weight, footprint, and cost of traditional manufacturing equipment to achieve greater efficiency and modularity. These efforts led to a cellular and modular manufacturing machine format that is now relatively commonplace for rapid prototyping machines and compact fabrication systems. A critical feature of the cellular approach is that the automation systems allow for a workpiece or assembly to be moved freely among stations to meet the prediction customizations and features. This approach differs drastically from the highly linear production line approach typical in most mass manufacturing.

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