How Flexible Is Your Factory?
Flexibility is more important than ever.
f you practice yoga, flexibility is extremely important. Bending and stretching helps people accomplish difficult poses such as downwardfacing dog or the standing halfmoon. Flexible thinking is equally important in today’s complex business world. In fact, Roland Berger Strategy Consultants GmbH (Munich, Germany) recently conducted a study in which it discovered that the key to success in a slow economy is flexibility. “Companies that react quicker to changes in the market are able to stay solidly in the black,” says Thomas Ring, a partner in Roland Berger’s operations strategy competence center. ...view middle of the document...
It allows for the future assembly of similar, possibly unrelated or currently undefined products. Unfortunately, machine builders, systems integrators and their customers often have different definitions and ideas about “flexibility.” “It means different things to different customers in different industries,” says Jim Diederich, vice president of marketing at Assembly and Test Worldwide (Dayton, OH). “There are multiple definitions of the word, even within the same companies. “We’ve seen opinions about ‘flexibility’ differ from the people writing up initial specs to the people signing off on finished equipment,” Diederich points out. To avoid problems and confusion, he urges manufacturing engineers to ensure that everyone in their plant shares the same goals and objectives with flexible assembly lines. “Flexibility implies more than just product, process, lot-size and routing flexibilities,” claims Frank Chen, Ph.D., director of the Center for Advanced
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Manufacturing and Lean Systems at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “It is how a manufacturing system can cope with rapid changes of customer demands in both product styling and quantities, and how easily the system can be reconfigured to have higher automation or higher labor content. “Productivity cannot be gained via implementing flexible manufacturing,” notes Chen, who has been studying flexible manufacturing systems since the 1980s. “Rapid customer response and shorter time to market are the real incentives for implementing flexible [assembly lines].” Mark Dinges, product marketing manager for linear motion and assembly technologies at Bosch Rexroth Corp. (Buchanan, MI), agrees with Chen. “Manufacturers are constantly pressed with supplying smaller and more complex products,” he points out. “However, the greatest pressure actually comes from reducing time to market. As product life cycles continue to shrink, successful manufacturers must utilize a flexible production system to get their products to market faster and to stay competitive. “The ultimate goal of flexible manufacturing is to provide the right product to the right customer at the right time,” adds Dinges. “Lean thinking is involved here, because supplying the right product at the right time includes the concept of manufacturing to customer takt time, and the ability to ramp up or scale back production to meet the level of customer demand.” Flexible Champions When it comes to building complex products and meeting customer needs, it’s impossible to overlook the auto industry, which has been implementing various forms of flexible assembly lines for the past decade. Today, automakers must assemble a greater mix of vehicles in a shrinking number of plants. More types of vehicles are available than ever and new products proliferate every year to address diverse consumer tastes. Indeed, there are more niche segments, platforms and...