In recent years, flexibility has attracted significant attention from small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in metalcasting and academia due to varying customer demands and increasing competition. Changing operating conditions are forcing firms to be flexible in handling variations in demand and product and uncertainty and changes in the environment. Such factors have affected manufacturing companies for a long time, but their influence has escalated during the past 20 years as a result of advances in manufacturing technology and demand for mass customization.
Organizations, both large and small, require reconfigurable equipment to produce one-of-a-kind or small batch quantities of customized products. Client demand for small volumes of customizable product leads to a paradigm shift in how effectively an SME, with 10-25 employees on average, would operate to quickly and effectively deliver parts. Identifying best practices is a tricky process that is difficult to implement, which is more noticeable when the companies are SMEs. Typically, SMEs have limited resources and knowledge of automation methodologies. To address this, the Norwegian Research Council started a project to test the concept of a shared flexible manufacturing environment tailored to metalcasting SME requirements.
The participating metalcasting consortium in the project agreed to test part handling automation solutions at two metalcasting facilities in a living lab setting. Living labs began to emerge in early 2000, and the concept has since grown. A precondition in living lab activities is that they are used in a real-world context. During this living lab process, constant feedback for improvement was collected and transformed into a requirement list for the technology providers.