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Method and implementation

Research design

To perform the study commissioned for this thesis work, the research course represented in the flowchart below has been followed.
The research object of this paper has been carried out adopting an interpretivist approach, grounded on the collection and subsequent analysis of data to derive rules and knowledge. Interpretive approaches rely on inductive reasoning to gain understanding (Kroeze, 2012) “in areas with no or insufficient a priori theory” (Bhattacherjee, 2012). In contrast with positivism, where research questions are used for theory testing, the inductive approach uses them to “narrow the scope of the study” (Gabriel, 2019). In this method, the research work, starting from data, aims to build “a theory about the phenomenon of interest from the observed data” (Bhattacherjee, 2012), consequently this research work can be divided in three main stages:
Data collection
Data analysis
For each of which several methods and techniques (described more in detail later on in this chapter) have been employed.
The term prestudy refers to the gathering of background information necessary to frame the research and provide directions for the way forward, before getting into the central theme of the paper.
The first step, once established the purpose of the project, was the acquisition of a general view of the context of the research work, i.e. the concepts of modularization and standardization and their implications.
For this reason, even before physically being in the company, an extensive literature research has been carried out to gain an insight on the existing approaches to the topic, inspecting relevant publications, websites and course literature.
Once in the company, another piece of background information necessary for the project has been collected: the external perspective. As prompted by Schuh, Rudolf and Vogels (2014) the market analysis was used to identify the initial field of observation and market segments. This investigation comprehends technical similarities with competitors, customer fields, new competitors and innovations as well as price ranges, regions and usage. (Schuh, Rudolf, & Vogels, 2014)
The next phase was the collection of data directly significant for the scope of the research. The material gathered concerns all stages of the of the product development process: identification of customer needs and expectations, commercial offer and definition of the architecture of the system. The sources were respectively clients and the company’s employees dealing with them, historical records of Ficep’s commercial offers and dossiers on handling systems already realized and Ficep’s experienced product managers and designers in cooperation with Trennitalia’s expertise and knowledge. The methods used in this process were brainstorming, to obtain the full spectrum of customer requests straight from the interested parties, case studies and interviews, to look for patterns in the translation of the requests into technical specifications of the system, the relationships between technical specifications and physical characteristics of the elements of the handling system and the rules for their configuration.
All the information assembled in the previous phase was then analysed with the scope of deriving a new product architecture. The methods used in consecutive order were functional decomposition to subdivide the functionalities of the whole handing system into functions of the individual units that make them up, Function-means tree analysis to assign the functions to constituent modules, the interface analysis through which the interdependencies of the modules are used to standardize the interfaces between them to guarantee interchangeability and set the performance to remain the same.
To structure this knowledge a configurator has been created using Excel as base software and, being the distribution of translator arms a linear optimization problem, the built in Solver tool has been included in the computation routine. Automatizing the definition of constraints (self-adapting on the base of the input specifics) and launch of the solver through the coding of macros allowed the individuation of the optimal centre distance, in turn instrumental for the choice and layout of roller conveyors.

Literature research

The first stage in a research project is the definition of the context and the background for the study and the best way to start gaining acquaintance with the topic is to perform a literature research on it. This procedure involves analysing and synthetizing the conceptual literature as well as articles, completed research reports, theses, conference papers and all the relevant material about the topic under investigation (Williamson, 2002). Exploring the information directly connected to the topic of the study can also widen the horizons of the researcher, leading to serendipical discoveries beyond the specific field of study and uncover links between subjects useful in the subsequent practical applications of the theory examined. (Williamson, 2002)
The exploration of the topic in literature includes the selection and articulation of the research questions to be investigated in relation to the object of interest of the research. All actions from that point onward will indeed be aimed at seeking answers to the research questions chosen. (Bhattacherjee, 2012)
Unlike positivist approach, in which the research questions are formulated as hypotheses to be validated using empirical data, in interpretivist research designs the research questions state the area in which new theory will have to be derived from data (e.g. what, why, how, when, etc.) (Bhattacherjee, 2012).

Market and competitors’ analysis

Ficep customers are either builders of structural steel structures that work on contracts for large infrastructure projects and carry out the entire process, or their subcontractors, outsourcing partners specialized in carrying out the machining of beams and profiles they are subcontracted for. The main applications can be:
Industrial buildings
Residential buildings (skyscrapers)
Other public buildings (e.g. stadiums, arenas, etc.)
Offshore structures
Telecommunication towers and transmission infrastructures
Bridges and other major infrastructures
Ficep’s reference market is mainly foreign, where over 90% of turnover is realized, and extra-European where 80% of turnover is realized. It is therefore important to investigate the situation of the competitors on a global scale.
The development goals set for the Smart Modular Steel Fabrication System project are intended to gain a significant further advance over the state of the art in the sector, in terms of performance and functionality.
The structural steel manufacturing field has in recent years seen a strong technological development that has led producers to offer ever more sophisticated and performing machines, able to perform more operations without the need to move the semi-finished part from one piece of equipment to another and without the use of highly qualified personnel. Traditionally, in fact, cutting (normally thermal) and processing activities (drilling, milling, marking) were performed on different machines, at different times and with personnel with different qualifications. In the last decade, however, factors such as: the increase in the value of semi-finished materials, and consequently the value of the warehouse, the reduction of time between design and construction, the race for efficiency through “just in time” also for non-series productions, such as those in the construction sector and heavy carpentry, have progressively led the market to demand increasingly high-performance solutions from manufacturers, characterized by high automation and productivity, combined with greater flexibility and versatility in production systems.
From the information available, no competitor has yet developed a fully modular configuration system that covers the entire machinery and handling systems.

Data collection

Brainstorming is an idea generation tool used in groups to combine a relaxed, informal approach to problem solving with lateral thinking. The strength of this method is the possibility of generating a large number of ideas about a specific topic in a short time. Unlike other more structured and analytical processes this approach encourages creative thinking and stimulates enthusiasm, encouraging active participation. (Kohlweiss & Herstätter, 2018) (MindTools, 2019)
The base rule for Brainstorming is “Quantity before quality” as each participant should work for quantity and all proposals should be taken note of without criticism or comments (neither positive nor negative) that could shut off the flow of ideas. (Kohlweiss & Herstätter, 2018)
Every single idea can thus become the starting point for all the other participants to go further in that direction and / or take it to the next level.
Only after a satisfactory number of answers has been collected, it is possible to engage a constructive discussion of all the suggestions to evaluate and choose between them. The most important aspect of this practice is the separation in time of stream of thoughts and critical analysis, as people tend to immediately evaluate each suggested idea their own, as well as others, while postponed assessment encourages interaction between team members. (Kohlweiss & Herstätter, 2018)
Another essential factor for a fruitful outcome is the choice of heterogenous group participants, coming from a wide range of disciplines and with different points of view on the topic, for example including customers, that in this way would even get a feeling of being more committed in the partnership as they were involved in the development process. (MindTools, 2019)
Ficep has recurred to this method in a workshop with about 40 people (including sales agents, customer care and customers) from all over the world divided in 6 mixed groups to bring into focus the definition of the functional specifications of the system in terms of performance, functionality, versatility and flexibility requirements.

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Case studies

Case study research is a valid method for theory development and testing, as it provides evidence in areas where existing knowledge is limited. This approach is indeed particularly appropriate when the ”experiences of individuals and the contexts of actions are critical” or when ”a phenomenon is dynamic and not yet mature or settled” (Williamson, 2002). In order to handle more easily the amount and variety of the data of interest, the latter have to be structured in a way that will facilitate the recognition of trends, for example with the use of tabulations. (Williamson, 2002)
The commercial offers of the whole carpentry product range with standard configuration handling system has been summarized in an Excel file to be used later in the deduction of the recurring patterns in the assembly of the rollerways and loading / unloading tables with respect to the specifics of the machine tools present in the plant and their eventual combination.
The study of the layouts and part lists of plants realized in the past by Ficep and currently on duty has been used in the testing the configurator to compare the results proposed by its calculations with known feasible solutions to check their appropriateness and consistency.


The interview technique is commonly used in surveys where the information sought cannot be articulated in simple brief answers. Due to the direct personal contact interviews are properly fitted for exploratory purposes concerning a specific topic, since conducting them in an unstructured o semi-structured way basically lets one answer lead to the following questions. (Williamson, 2002)
They are often used to “collect extensive data from key people” about case studies, going in depth about specific points of interest (Williamson, 2002)
Several meetings have been scheduled with the partner company Trennitalia, with mutual visits in both facilities to get more complex and complete responses about the findings of the case studies and refine the theories deducted. Despite the objective expense in terms of time and money, the answers obtained through the semi-structured interview with Eng. Riccardo Borsoi, have been well worth the investment.

Data analysis
Functional decomposition

The customer needs identified in the previous steps have to be structured and transformed into formalized and detailed specifications that describe what the functionalities of the individual units and of the complete production system must be. The design of the modular architecture follows a functional approach, i.e. by breaking down the machine on the base of function of use criteria. This approach is more innovative than the morphological-structural approach traditionally used, which relies on technical-structural canons and essentially concerns functions related to the form and location of the modules. The process of deriving the individual modules specifications starting from the general specifications of the system will have to bear in mind the importance of compromise, as too strict specifications can lead to an excessive cost of the individual modules. In general, the process presents different problems depending on the type of parameters implied in the specification. In fact, while some overall characteristics refer directly to the characteristics of the modules, most of them depend on the overall architecture of the system. In the first case the specification values can be directly transferred from the list of total specifications to the list of specific details of the functional units, while in the second the procedure is more complex. For example, feed rates move directly from the list of overall specifications to the list of drive unit specifications, while the projection of the dynamic characteristics depends on the type of module. The static force that stresses the system during the translation of the beam, affects in different ways rollerways and loading / unloading tables. The determination of the necessary stiffness of the system regarding this stress is therefore based on completely different principles, as in rollerways is controlled through the diameters of the rolls while in the loading / unloading tables is responsible for the type and number of translator arms.
This example shows how the projection process of the list of overall features in the list of module characteristics can be a complex process since:
The value that measures the overall performance can be a non-linear function of the value that measures the performance of the module;
This function may depend on the type of machine;
The nature of the service to be specified and the physical size of the value that the specification could change, passing from the overall performance to that of the module (for example in the case where the bending rigidity of the overall system results in a torsional rigidity of the module) .
The characteristics of the modules can be classified into three different types that require different attention with regard to the decomposition process:
Independent characteristics: they concern elementary or basic functions that refer to a single module. In this case the value of the global specification is transferred directly to the list of module specifications. In general, the number of independent features in the case of a morphological-structural decomposition tends to be much smaller than in the case of a functional breakdown. For example, in the case of a slider, a morphological-structural breakdown leads to identifying the static part and the moving part of the slider as modules. Consequently, the global specification relating to positioning accuracy results in a number of different specifications for the two component modules. On the other hand, a functional decomposition leads to the identification of the entire axis and the positioning precision can be transferred as it is to the functional module.

1 Introduction
2 Theoretical background
3 Method and implementation
4 Findings and analysis
5 Discussion and conclusions
6 References
Standardization and modularization of Handling system

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