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Flexible Manufacturing

Flexible Manufacturing Definition: The ability to manufacture either at least two products or two models of one product on the same assembly line (preferably at the same time).

In most situations it makes sense for a Mass Production environment to embrace Flexible Manufacturing. Mass Production is a department based manufacturing system.  It focuses on each department adding value to the product or service as fast as possible. This philosophy is commonly referred to as “Build to Store” or in other words, the most important production metric is production volume.

The downfall of this philosophy is that it does not manufacture as a system. The advantage of a system is that it looks at manufacturing as a holistic environment including the customers, R&D, sales and marketing, suppliers, and then finally, manufacturing.  This allows controls and a big picture view of production.

When a manufacturing environment is looked at holistically then problems are surfaced. In the ideal manufacturing world a customer would place an order which would then flow through the manufacturing environment and back to the customer. The challenge here is in production leveling. If customer orders initiate action then you want the customer order volume to be flat.

The Improvement

One way to flatten customer order volume is to increase the suite of products produced. But the key here is not to just set up more assembly lines, but to use the existing assembly lines to produce more than one product or model. That is the essence of Flexible Manufacturing.

If you have multiple assembly lines then look for commonality between those assembly lines. Maybe an example would work better here. Let’s say you are Manufacturing computers. There may be many different models of computers that your company sells. The good thing about computers is that there is lots of commonality. Every computer has common elements between all models:

  • case,
  • power supply,
  • multiple internal wiring harnesses, and
  • I/O devices

This would give you the opportunity to start the manufacture of a computer and progress down the line before specifying a unique configuration. That flexibility in starting a product build and then continuing, based upon customer orders, allows you to move from a “Build to Store” environment to more of a “Build to Order” solution.

Flexible Manufacturing enables an agile manufacturing environment that produces products as a response to customer order. This could be a first step towards Lean Production.

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