Remaining in play is the name of the game in manufacturing competition today. That is to say, to find the orders that keep things going, and going well, you have to be on the field with your competitors in the first place. That’s where the action is found, that’s where potential customers come to look for services, parts, and products. Through consolidation, however, the competition is changing. The days of parity, where niches were carved to pinpoint exactly what you and your competitors were all about, are becoming fewer and fewer. To remain in play in manufacturing today, a company must often introduce flexibility into their shop floor operations. Once a novel notion, flexible manufacturing is increasingly taking hold as both a practice in the shop and a philosophical approach for management.
Manufacturers no longer work in isolation from each other; rather, they usually exist as part and parcel of a large supply chain whereby the degree of success of one partner is driven by the reciprocal success of the others. Throughout the supply chain, the potential for downstream producers being flexible in their production activities means that unless you are equally dynamic you could easily lose the work as the upstream partner. This concept is more fully considered as customizability whereby operations must be flexible enough to adapt to the environment in which they compete and to satisfy different market segments as they emerge.
This is not to say one must move from one industry focus to another (e.g., oil field to wood milling), or to pick up unusual large batch orders for single parts. And, make-to-order or specialized job shops are not designed to be mass producers that must flex to emerging consumer or industrial needs. Instead, flexible manufacturing involves the production of reasonably priced customized products that can be quickly delivered to customers.
The main advantage (and philosophical requirement) of working within in a flexible manufacturing system is in the flexible attitude taken toward managing resources such as time, manpower, and machinery in manufacturing a new product. For this reason, flexible manufacturing is best suited for orders involving the mass production of small sets or batches of products. Therefore, by definition a flexible manufacturer is one who remains agile, capable of being very fast to market at low costs and on-time with the delivery of the finished goods (often, including packaging).
For flexible manufacturing to succeed, a manufacturer must be capable of producing a variety of parts without the need for major retooling of machinery. More than a simple operational consideration, the capability to quickly convert machinery is a philosophy that permeates the shop—convertibility equates with customizability. In this philosophy, technology is not just tools to be used but is managed as a complete system. Indeed, the true measure of a flexible manufacturing system is found in the speed with which it can convert shop floor processes from the production of one product to a new one. As well, flexibility is gaugeable by the ability to adjust production scheduling, to rapidly modify a part already in production, and/or the capability of handling production of several parts or assembles at once.
Engaging a flexible manufacturing system is not for everyone. It is both a philosophy and an operations approach that requires both machine flexibility and routing flexibility. Such systems are also complex, costly to implement, and require significant pre-planning to ensure successful conversion. For this reason, flexible manufacturing cell production still remains the preferred method of lean and quick production agility. However, with the speed with which competition moves in the modern manufacturing world, flexible manufacturing systems are more frequently being considered as robust and all-encompassing production alternatives to cell production.