Flexible Manufacturing: Modern Manufacturers are Flexibly Rigid

20th century manufacturing was about production, and 21st century manufacturing is about productivity. If you’re looking to transform and advance your current manufacturing processes, it would be worthwhile to read some of the principles of flexible manufacturing that your competition is embracing as they climb to the top of the market.

1. Taking away control leads to better quality.

Manufacturers have historically devoted a great deal of work to improving quality, developing specialized quality control (QC) techniques to hone in on specific values or control limits. However, with the data at manufacturers’ fingertips today, QC is giving way to quality assurance (QA). Instead of working to meet a specific quality standard and identify a defect, QA is woven into processes so that the final product will meet quality standards – and fewer defects occur. 

Flexible manufacturing processes enable a more analytic approach to ensuring quality, empowering entire teams from technicians and operators to engineers and managers to work together to refine processes and respond to change. 

2. People should have the ability to automate themselves out of some work.

Traditional manufacturing processes are filled with manual, sometimes redundant tasks, and employees’ job descriptions might as well be carved in stone. An agile manufacturing approach empowers technicians and operators to find better ways to work. After all, people closest to processes are often the best positioned to see how to improve them and increase ROI. 

For example, an additive manufacturer we spoke with had some employees’ tasks overlapping with post-processing jobs performed by robots. The company empowered that team to chip away at their own work by programming the robots to accomplish it, enabling those employees to advance to higher-level work. Taking a flexible approach rather than operating by the book resulted in huge wins for the employees and the business. 

3. You can plan too much.

Planning is essential, but if you have every element of a process planned to the most minute detail, you will eliminate agility. Flexible manufacturing allows you to retain the ability to adapt quickly when the unexpected occurs.

Eliminating planning completely is, of course, not the answer. Flexibility is. Manufacturers need to replace some of the control that a plan provides by developing a culture of excellent communication and coordination. Your team needs to shift from “What needs to be complete by 4 p.m. today?” to working together to answer more analytical questions, such as “How can we know we will be successful with this project?” In addition to building a new, collaborative environment, you need to continuously monitor activity. Flexibility requires real-time data on each process rather than reports after a run or project is complete. 

All these changes will enable the flexibility to take immediate action when needed to ensure adequate production and excellent quality. Furthermore, when companies achieve a culture that supports flexible manufacturing, they gain the added advantage of historically disparate teams now working together. That new synergy can inspire ideas and design improvements, and process enhancements, which the company will benefit from forever. 

Where to Begin in a Transition to Flexible Manufacturing 

If the flexible manufacturing model is miles away from how your operation currently runs, a good start to your transition is with processes that already have some tolerance rather than hard controls. 

Record data from that process but use it to find trends rather than analyze it in a traditional statistical process control (SPC) manner and locking in process capability (Cpk) values. Monitor workflows continuously and remain flexible and adaptive to what you observe, creating a different approach to the control loop that more traditional operations rely on. 

Buy-in is essential, but it may be easy to achieve. Your team will soon realize that you can pinpoint issues more quickly in flexible manufacturing processes than they could with SPC and immediately correct problems, more easily keeping operations on track, reducing waste, and controlling costs. 

Technology That Increases Flexibility

Technology will be key in your transition from a traditional to a flexible manufacturing model. Internet of Things (IoT) technology allows for a level of connectivity that most manufacturers have never had before. It gives you the ability to move logic and decision making close to workflows. You can embed computing power, data collection, and automation right at the vibration machine, thermal chamber, or non-destructive testing machine and provide the continuous data you need to monitor processes in an agile environment. 

Flexible manufacturers are also beginning to “unbundle” their enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Again, it’s another move that’s counterintuitive to traditional manufacturers, but transitioning from one system that makes all the decisions for the company to logic right at the workflow will add flexibility to your operation. If one machine goes down or one technician with specialized skills takes PTO, you have the flexibility to adjust quickly and continue to advance production.

The Agile Advantage

When you break the grip of rigid processes and achieve the cultural change necessary for successful flexible manufacturing, your organization stands to benefit in great ways. Full-on control and total repeatability won’t be the recipe for success in the 21st century. The more beneficial course is to build an organization that’s dynamic, constantly iterating, responding to competitive threats with agility, controlling costs, and improving quality. 

The transition to flexible manufacturing may take time – and some tolerance for failure—but persevere. There is a payoff. Manufacturers that can innovate and confront change with agility will rise to the top, overtaking companies that insist on sticking to every detail of a fixed plan.