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Agile Manufacturing

Agile manufacturing describes a company’s ability to be responsive to the marketplace. A company has to be able to roll out new products and services as the needs and desires of their customers change. It also has to offer increasingly varied product mixes and greater customization when customers requires it. Agile manufacturing promotes the belief that these rapid adjustments can be done in a cost effective manner.

The term flexible manufacturing is commonly used interchangeably with agile manufacturing, though advocates of each see it as a distinct philosophy of production. Because the terms flexible and agile manufacturing are both relatively new, and because there is no dominant group defining what they mean, there is no true consensus definition for either.

Agile manufacturing is rooted in the fact that your company’s competitors are racing you to roll-out new products and services, and are offering greater options and customization on existing products. As markets become more global, customer have an ever increasing range of options. This means that companies must be more responsive to changing customer demand to stay profitable.

Regardless of whether you are a senior executive setting a timeline for the release of a new product, an administrator supporting product sales, or a lead in a manufacturing cell that will have to set up the new production line, this compressed new product development timeline and increasing product customization will eventually affect you. To be successful, as in all continuous improvement efforts, one must set aside traditional beliefs and embrace the possibility that there is a better, faster, cheaper way to do things.

The term agile manufacturing, though, has not caught on in the same way that Lean Manufacturing, or JIT have. Much of this is due to its similarity to these other continuous improvement efforts. While agile manufacturing advocates pitch the philosophy as the next step past Lean, in many ways, agile manufacturing is simply a repackaging what Lean companies are already doing.

The most common distinction that advocates of agile manufacturing offer between Lean and agile is that Lean is focused on high volume products, and agile is more suited to low volume, high mix products, or those with short product lifecycles that require rapid new product development.

In truth, most of the benefits attributed to agile manufacturing are also present in Lean organizations. Lean works well in all production environments when the principles are adapted to the situation.

Much of the opportunity for agile to take root comes from the fact that Lean is often not well understood or is poorly implemented. The shortcomings in execution can easily be confused with shortcomings in the Lean philosophy.


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