Agile manufacturing is an operations management strategy that incorporates a highly integrated communication and flexible production setup and a flatter hierarchy for developing tools, training methods, and processes to respond to fluctuating market demand and thereby attain optimal production. In other words, an agile manufacturer can use existing tools, labor, equipment and raw materials to churn out custom or new products on the fly. For example, an agile television manufacturer would be able to use current infrastructure to produce newer TV models without deviating much from its routine or pumping in significant capital into its production line.

An organization with agile manufacturing at its core is typically more efficient at meeting market demands or responding quickly to altering consumer requirements, producing goods in huge numbers at short notice, meeting special customer requests, sharing its resources across various departments, and reducing setup times. Employees in an agile manufacturing system usually have the freedom to incorporate their creativity and skills for executing tasks quickly and to the complete satisfaction of a customer.

Planning Agile Manufacturing

Getting agile manufacturing production style rolling requires some hardcore planning. A group of select employees with a senior official or a board member should be assigned the job of creating the plan and managing the strategic shift. Existing supplier relationships should also be assessed since business partnerships are vital to agile manufacturing. The objective should be to identify strong alliances and further strengthen them, and weed out suppliers that aren’t the most responsive to requests and falter time and again.

The plans drawn should be long-term and should look into benchmarks, milestones, and contingencies. Benchmarks are signs indicating progression and success. Milestones would be the key objectives that need to be accomplished. And contingencies would be alternate plans or measures to change path or correct mistakes if the original plan goes wrong.

Communication and Cooperation

Quickly responding to market demand won’t be possible without integrated information technology (IT) solutions. This means all employees – ranging from customer service agents and sales teams to line workers – should be updated on market data and reliable production practices.

Agile manufacturing requires information setups shared between the design, product and marketing departments so that the data is always available to solve problems. The information flow should be real-time and accurate, enabling all departments of a company to act upon available information and ensure the process isn’t slowed down at any time and at any point.

As aforementioned, agile manufacturing entails both internal departments and third-party alliances that include vendors and logistics firms. These external alliances can respond promptly only if armed with necessary and sufficient production flow information. IT solutions facilitate this communication too. Internal stakeholders or employees, on the other hand, should be accustomed to new production practices, which can be accomplished through on-the-job training.

The teams working on a project are usually smaller as smaller teams facilitate better cooperation. Also, smaller teams’ production can be easily measured and quantified, letting managers tackle bottlenecks as and when they arise. Moreover, the different teams could be closely coupled by the management to enable cooperation and feedback.

Advantages

Customer satisfaction is unarguably the biggest takeaway from agile manufacturing. And this satisfaction stems from agile manufacturers’ ability to provide instant customer gratification, which could be in the form of personalized products and speedy services such as next-day delivery.

Agile manufacturing enables a company to adapt to changes and respond to dynamic consumer preferences and requirements. Conventional manufacturers usually cannot alter their products quickly enough. Agile manufacturers can tweak products without shaking up the entire manufacturing process.

Disadvantages

Agile manufacturers can incorporate changes into a product but may not be able to churn out the product in huge volumes as they usually won’t have the large inventory to back things up. Educating employees so that they can understand current market trends and requirements could be costly, especially when compared to traditional employee training.

Introducing modular product design and incorporating changes into the existing production line could be costly too. The new production technologies would also mean complications and increased production downtime, leading to higher maintenance costs.

Comparing Agile and Lean Manufacturing

Lean manufacturing is the foundation on which agile manufacturing is created. Lean is the precursor, which means a company that doesn’t practice lean manufacturing cannot truly incorporate agile manufacturing.

The goal of both agile and lean manufacturing is to improve upon a company’s bottom line, by incorporating computerized information systems, statistical analysis and enhancing communication between external and internal stakeholders. Like lean manufacturing, agile manufacturing helps an organization scale-up production levels without cost increases and quality drops.

However, unlike lean manufacturing, which aims to reduce production costs, agile manufacturing is keener on increasing revenues. It does so by employing modular designs and automation and quickly responding to unexpected buyer requests. The modularity makes agile manufacturing setups adapt better to custom requests, allowing firms to capitalize on available sales opportunities to the maximum. This also means the firm won’t need a larger inventory of small parts compared to lean manufacturing that needs a higher inventory.

At the end of the day, both manufacturing approaches enable smaller players to stay relevant in an industry that’s dominated by the bigger companies. And when both the methodologies are combined, a firm is able to add more to the bottom line. By the way, the amalgamation of lean and agile is called ‘leagile’ manufacturing.