Flexible Manufacturing Systems Explained

Customers of all stripes have grown more demanding. Consumers expect products with the particular features they want, personalized service, and immediate shipment. Much of that mindset has also spilled over into the B2B manufacturing world, where businesses also have elevated expectations. Fewer B2B customers will make-do with a stock product – especially when they know they can find a job shop that will give them exactly what they want.

The problem is that operations that produce items on a make-to-order basis are more expensive to operate. They typically make a lower volume of custom or customizable products, which limits the revenues they can generate. This is in sharp contrast to manufacturers that mass-produce a high volume of specific products in continuous, efficient operations. However, flexible manufacturing systems can help close the gap in efficiency and cost-effectiveness between job shops and manufacturing lines.

Flexible Manufacturing Systems Improve Key Metrics

Flexible manufacturing systems, introduced by inventor Jerome H. Lemelson in the 1950s and deployed throughout the decade that followed, were based on robotic systems that could perform tasks, such as welding, stamping, or quality control inspections.

Today's flexible manufacturing systems leverage additional technologies, including computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines, Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, computer-driven instrumentation, robotics, and AI-powered inspection tools. Flexible manufacturing systems are designed to execute manufacturing end to end, from raw materials and parts receiving through production and inspection. Moreover, when an operation needs to shift to a new item's production, the system switches to the next protocol.

Additionally, these systems give manufacturers the flexibility to route production to multiple machines to speed output and handle higher volumes in addition to shifting from manufacturing one type of product to another.

Manufacturers can benefit from flexible manufacturing systems in a number of ways. By leveraging this technology in the job shop, manufacturers:

  • Reduce setup time between production runs of different products
  • Maximize machine uptime
  • Have control over variations in process or assembly 
  • More easily adapt to changes in orders or design
  • Lower its demand for labor and, therefore, labor costs

From a broader perspective, flexible manufacturing systems can be a business' key to leaner operations, greater responsiveness to customers, heightened competitiveness, and greater efficiency and profitability overall.

The Right Technology is Crucial

Flexible manufacturing is more sophisticated and complex than legacy manufacturing processes, and as such, requires software with features capable of managing all the moving parts in the production process. Optimal software will support a connected environment in which data streams from the machines, sensors, processes, and people that need it in real time.

Flexible manufacturing system software also needs to provide engineers with the ability to plan production and provide access to and update as-built bills of materials (aBOMs) if changes occur. The solution should also record and manage parameters for quality inspections, a process that becomes more complex when the QA/QC department must inspect a wider variety of products. An added advantage of using flexible manufacturing management software is greater access to data for forecasting, a vital capability for shops that build to forecast for regular customers in niche markets or specific industries.

Software designed to manage flexible manufacturing should also include features that help teams -- from engineering, purchasing, production, and shipping and receiving -- to coordinate and collaborate. And, because employees working in various areas of the operation require different data to do their jobs well, it should give the manufacturer the ability to customize dashboards with the information most relevant to employees. For example, dashboards can display inventory data for purchasing, machine health data for production, and an overview of operations for company leadership.

Investments that Pay Off

Upgrading a job shop with a flexible manufacturing system is a major capital expenditure; however, businesses that do have determined that cost savings from greater efficiency, customer satisfaction that builds loyalty, and enhanced competitiveness more than offset the expense.

Equally important to investing in the optimal CNC machines, IoT systems, network infrastructure, robotics, and advanced technologies, is an investment in software up to the task of flexible manufacturing system management.

With the right technology, manufacturers maintain visibility, have the power to optimize processes, reduce waste, and consistently deliver the customized products their market demands, regardless of what's on the calendar.