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Understanding Agile Manufacturing

There are unique opportunities for U.S.-based manufacturing businesses of all sizes right now. 

For decades, manufacturing in the U.S. was significantly declining, but in recent years it’s been on the rise. 

There are situations right now that could end up making U.S. manufacturing a better option for companies as well. For example, there are ongoing supply chain issues when items are coming from overseas that businesses might look to avoid. 

There are also advances in automation that is allowing manufacturers to compete with what was long the competitive advantage for overseas organizations—cheap labor. 

Companies that work in manufacturing in the U.S. need to be prepared to take advantage of shifts in the economy. They need to make sure their machines are well-maintained to reduce the potential for downtime so they can offer rapid turnaround times. They also need to be prepared for anything, and that’s a lot of what agile manufacturing is about. 

The following is a breakdown of agile manufacturing. If you’re a product designer, engineer, or you might need to work with a manufacturer for any reason, knowing these principles can help you narrow down your options. 

An Overview

The term agile manufacturing refers to organizations that create the processes, training, and tools to allow them to respond quickly to manage market changes and to the needs of customers, but at the same time controlling quality and costs. 

The term agile is relevant to businesses of all types outside of manufacturing. An agile business is one that can quickly adapt and is resourceful. 

An agile business, in manufacturing or otherwise, can survive and also thrive in unpredictable conditions. A business built on a foundation of agility is able to effectively react to markets that are constantly changing. 

There is a deep sense of connection between the workers, the customers, and clients and the technology used. 

There’s also the term agile engineering, which is used in software development and sometimes, although less often, by hardware teams. In agile product development and engineering, the goal is efficiency without sacrificing the quality of the end product. 

A team using agile engineering will quickly do tests and gather feedback on product design. Then, it helps engineering teams as they deal with bigger challenges. 

How Is Agile Manufacturing Different?

Agile manufacturing focuses on adaptability and fast modification. Variations can be made easily, simplifying changes in design and delivering products quickly that are also highly personalized. 

Specific things that set agile manufacturing apart include:

– Information technology—when an organization has an IT infrastructure that’s correctly set up, it helps make sure that employees are well-versed on the technology, and it drives agile manufacturing. 

– Customer-focused product design—there is a coming together of different materials to simplify changes in design. 

– Partnerships—agility in manufacturing focuses on maintaining a sense of cooperation and positivity in partnerships. 

– Culture of knowledge—employees receive thorough and ongoing training to achieve true agility in manufacturing. Employees have to learn new information on best practices in production on a regular basis. Employees also need skills to quickly solve problems even when there are unexpected disruptions in continuity. 

– Supply chain cooperation—in agile methodologies, internal and external coordination is required. A supplier can only respond as quickly as is needed when they have the right product flow information. Shippers also have to know what they should expect to make sure end users are getting rapid delivery. In this type of manufacturing, the entire supply chain has to be in alignment with customer demand. 

– Modular product design—modular product design lets products serve as platforms for rapid variation. 

How Do Lean and Agile Manufacturing Compare?

Lean manufacturing involves the processes of reviewing all aspects of manufacturing and eliminating anything not absolutely needed. 

The things that are removed are those which are found to have no positive benefits for the process. 

For lean manufacturing to work, all the parts of the supply chain have to follow the same principles. 

Agile manufacturing is focused more on using data to make changes in the processes and using all the resources in a smart way. Lean manufacturing, by comparison, is about dropping unneeded waste and weight. 

There are a few core similarities in these approaches. 

Both work to reduce expenses during business downturns. With the use of agility or lean practices, companies can scale operations as needed, although it’s easier with an agile model than with a lean model. 

Both approaches also rely a lot on the use of data and analytics, proactive planning, and forecasting. The more information you can gather, the better decisions will be and outcomes. 

There’s a term when both are combined in manufacturing—leagile. 

This hybrid approach takes some elements of both agile and lean manufacturing, making them into an effective process. 

There are three phases of so-called leagile manufacturing. 

First, there’s the activation of a flexible production capacity that works with ups and downs in customer demand. 

Then, there is the creation of multiple programs that can be activated as needed without having to remove resources or equipment from a business. 

The third phase is the establishment of manufacturing schedules based on forecasting, which can then be used for the activation of the final assembly process based on the arrival of orders. 

There have been major shifts in the manufacturing landscape that have both led to the need for and the demand for agile methods. 

A rapidly evolving environment involving technological implications is one. Customers are also changing. Today’s customers have extremely high standards. Customers want cheaper production, faster delivery, and more customization of products, and they aren’t willing to sacrifice any of these. 

The regulatory environment is expanding and becoming more complex, and new technologies are coming onto the market essentially every day. 

According to a report from McKinsey, manufacturing will face more disruptions through 2024 than in the past twenty years combined. 

Finally, a skills gap is also impacting manufacturing and leaving many unfilled positions, further necessitating the need for agile processes to stay competitive.