Agile Manufacturing

What is agile manufacturing?

As explained in the Goal, there are different reasons for the need of rapid responsiveness of the organization. Mainly it has to do with market demands (faster, uncertainties/changes, mass configuration, competition), technology (new technology, finding limits), and the organization itself.

As part of the business value chain, supply chain, and as part of that, manufacturing, will also need be become rapid responsive. Most factories are still organized around process and driven by efficiency (cost-cutting). This resulted in rigid factory layouts with clusters of highly specialized and expensive efficiency optimized machines for each step in the process. People are organized around these clusters and work is organized to keep machines and people busy. With the introduction of lean manufacturing, improvements were made, but most of them were aimed at reducing costs. For instance by minimizing inventory through efficient purchasing, and outsourcing non-core production activities. In many cases the result was longer lead times and lower flexibility, the opposite of what we need for agile manufacturing.

Viewing manufacturing as an organization, we find the similar aspects that help rapid responsiveness as for any agile organization. In general we can say that agile manufacturing mainly needs three things: 1) Rapid responsive organization, 2) Rapid responsive production flow, 3) Technical ability. At the same time, to enable agile manufacturing, there has to be sufficient attention to architecture and design that supports agile manufacturing (Design for Manufacturing).

There are however specific differences and challenges. As Don Reinertsen puts it, “It is the difference between making food and making recipes. The manufacturing factory creates food for people to eat. The design factory creates recipes.” Factories typically deliver a product multiple times, from small series to mass production, where product development delivers a recipe only once. However, with increased mass configuration and incremental improvements from development, quantities will drop. Without changing the organization, way of organizing production flow and the technical abilities, quality will drop and costs will sky-rocket. As agile manufacturing has a totally different purpose, vision and strategy will need to change and with that the organization, way of organizing, and technical ability. To get there requires a transition as described in The Journey.

Rapid responsive organization

To be able to quickly respond to changes (like market conditions), we need flexibility, both in capacity as in competence/capabilities. We need this in people and machinery in our own organization, as well as suppliers we depend on. We can find flexibility in the machines, people, organizations themselves, or by being flexible in where to have the work done. Machines can become more flexible by rapid tool changes, flexible grippers, use of multi-purpose robots, etc.

People can become more flexible by learning different competences (T-shape), using technology like augmented assembly, etc. 

Organizations can become more flexible by bringing work to teams or partners, or better even, let them pull it in from a pool, resulting in something referred to as virtual enterprise. The network-like structure and flexible flow of production, will require a different type of management as explained in the topic on “Rapid responsive production flow”.

The type of suppliers we need are the ones that share the vision of agile manufacturing. Particularly for co-developers and suppliers that have to deliver rapid proto’s varying from simple 3D parts, to complete assemblies like PDB’s. It helps to have a pool of these suppliers and work in close contact with them (cut out hand-offs and dependencies).

People (and that includes suppliers, co-developers, etc.) require knowledge, skills and insight in order to be rapid responsive in this complex environment. This takes time and effort. Therefore it is important to invest in long term relationships like stable teams and strategic alliances (agile contracts) with suppliers.

Rapid responsive production flow

Delivering complete (sub)systems requires production, collection, and assembly of many many parts coming from many different suppliers from all over the world. The parts can be standard, customized, co-developed, complete subsystems, etc. Some are stock items where others are on back-order or being co-developed which can possible result in delays. When we combine this with flexibility in who will deliver, e.g. via a pool of international suppliers that can bid on work, things get quite complex. Similar to Product Flow, we need to guide and manage the production flow, and also the transition to agile manufacturing.

Guidance means that we understand why we need this (purpose/mission) and how we expect it will look in several years (vision), so we can engage suppliers that are willing and capable of participating. We need to form a strategy and determine objectives that will bring us closer to the vision, and form coalitions to collaboratively create results. As with agile product development, it might also be a good idea to introduce cadence and synchronization to production. This could provide a heartbeat in which suppliers can align and deliver, parts and (sub)assemblies can pass through, and predictability is improved.

Managing the flow means making it incremental (design for manufacturing) and visible. By reducing the overall work in process and batch sizes (flexible machines can bring down transaction costs), reducing rework (for instance production simulation as a form of test driven production), manage capacity (offer work to pool for pulling), prioritize work based on true value/effort (or better even, cost of delay), and reduce bad variability (let robots take over simple to complicated repetitive work, organize so developers, supply chain, factory workers, suppliers, etc. are working closely, even co-located, together).

Technical ability

You asked the impossible of a machine and the machine complied.” – Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Technology is a big enabler for agility.

  • It can take away error-prone, time and resource consuming tedious tasks.
  • It can reduce physical limitations like reach, weight, hazards, fatigue, etc. via exoskeletons, remote operated robots in hazardous areas, handtools, etc.
  • It can calculate and simulate for fast, sometimes autonomous, decision making.
  • Automated machines can be rapidly adjusted by sending new instructions remotely and providing flexible grippers and tools.
  • AGV’s can be used to transport goods flexibly and fast between stations or from/to storage.
  • Robots can work together to do complicated tasks.
  • Robots (smart algorithms or AI) can support people in making decisions (robo-assistent).
  • Robots that can quickly do a complex task by learning from a person.
  • Production simulation can verify production plans before execution to prevent downtime.
  • Sharing data (e.g. via PDM, MRP, model based design, over the cloud) makes it more accessible and instant (especially when suppliers are part of that).
  • Flexible machines like 3D printers can print huge (coach bus size) complex parts (even electronics) in various materials (even titanium), even in combinations in one go.
  • Augmented reality can enhance the flexibility and speed of workers.