Flexible manufacturing was popular in the 1990’s. Twenty years into the 21st century, we don’t hear much about it anymore. Instead, we hear a lot more about digital and connectivity. Amid a raging pandemic, people also talk about resilience.
Whatever the buzzword, what matters in the end is how well enterprises deliver versus customer demand. It’s nice to have a robot that does twice the job of an ordinary person, but it’s another thing when an enterprise didn’t make available items when the customer needed them, which happens more often than not.
Flexibility is the capability to change quickly and adapt to fickle demand. It is the ability to switch from one product to another or the means to swiftly tweak a service to meet a customer’s unique needs.
Flexibility does not happen by itself. It’s the result of a strategy or a policy. An enterprise becomes flexible because it decides to do so.
Flexibility is not agility and it isn’t responsiveness, although all three work well together. Versatility is the combination of flexibility, agility, and responsiveness and is an ideal an enterprise wouldn’t mind having. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Flexible systems are applied popularly in manufacturing. They come in different forms. The following are some examples:
Cells – groups of machines run by one to three operators. For instance, a machine shop that has several groups in which each consists of a lathe, drill, and milling machine run by a single operator. Each group does its own product from start to finish.
Parallel lines – several identical production lines in which each makes a variant of an item. For instance, three to four soap lines in which each produces a different colour of soap.
Fast change-overs – a production line in which operators can quickly change from one item to another. For instance, a steel pipe manufacturer which is equipped with jigs and fixtures that are easily adjustable that allows operators to change from one diameter of pipe to another within minutes.
Common core – a product line that has a common base or module to build varieties of items on to. For instance, an auto assembly line that uses the same chassis for different models of cars and vans.
Modular Manufacturing – using pre-assembled or pre-fabricated modules and assembling them into varieties of products. For instance, suppliers to an aircraft manufacturer deliver pre-assembled portions such as the fuselage and wing such that the aircraft manufacturer can not only quickly put together an airplane but also mingle the parts differently to produce a different variant (such as a longer fuselage for one aircraft and a shorter one for another).
Successfully implementing flexibility relies on a few principles:
1. Think small
The larger the manufacturing group, the more complicated and rigid the operation. The smaller the group, the more flexible it becomes. Having multiple small groups such as cells allows more leeway to customise items of different specifications, at smaller lot quantities, and in shorter time.
2. Balance integration with autonomy
Integration means connection toward a common goal of delivering value for the finished product or service. It is not centralisation. An enterprise would do well to give individual managers some freedom and authority to design their operations without sacrificing coordination with others.
3. Innovate to invest
Enterprises sometimes have it the other way around. They invest to innovate. They pour resources to consultants and outsiders to design the flexibilities. The enterprise’s stakeholders are supposed to be the experts, so shouldn’t the innovation come from within and not without? Wouldn’t it better to first tap home-grown expertise and then invest in the innovations that are brought forth?
4. Cultivate talent, not acquire it
Likewise, with talent. Enterprises sometimes try to hire the best talent outright. But those in the organisation know its workings better than anyone else. We don’t have to limit an operator to one machine; we can train her with another and reward her for the skills she gained on top of the performance she will contribute. The enterprise reaps productivity as a result.
5. Use multiple measures
Flexibility has that quirk that it’s not measurable by one metric. We can measure capacity and service because they are singular. Flexibility is multi-dimensional. It requires several metrics and analytics to see.
6. Everyone is a member of the team
We hear it again and again. Top management support. Commitment by everyone. At the same time, we form task forces that include only a few and leave out the others. When it comes to flexibility, that one cell, production line, or module does not perform alone. It needs coordination and synchronisation as much as it needs the space and design to work freely within itself.
The operators in a group are a team, yes, but the group is part of a larger team that puts the groups together toward one goal. It may have been difficult then, but modern day technology has allowed everyone to stay in touch and be a member of the overall enterprise team.
Flexibility may be a bygone buzzword. But it still is very much applicable for enterprises seeking to stay in business amid the challenges and disruptions of the present-day. They are ways to be flexible, such as via cells, parallel lines, fast change-overs, common cores, and modular manufacturing. Following some principles, enterprises can progress in productivity and remain on top of the heap.
Ellery S. Lim is a senior associate at Prosults Consulting LLP, a logistics entrepreneur, and previously worked for P&G Philippines. He holds Engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.