The concept of agility within production systems is not recent: however, today it is becoming increasingly popular due to the enormous benefit that companies can derive from it by virtue of the greater reactivity and flexibility (therefore resilience) in response to the volatility and variability of materials. prime and market demand.
In this post we will therefore provide some information and useful ideas for the implementation of agile production systems.
Agile manufacturing: a new paradigm
The concept of agility is beginning to gain ground especially in the field of software development. In 2001 the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development” was born, based on 12 principles:
- Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
- Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
- Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
- Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
- Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
- The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
- Working software is the primary measure of progress.
- Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
- Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
- Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
- The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
- At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
Clearly, the agile approach focuses on the following three main concepts:
- Fast but rough is better than slow but perfect
- Focus on what is value to the customer
- There is a need to accept running change in requirements
Many of these concepts, as we shall see, are borrowed from Lean methodology, from which agile methodology evidently draws inspiration.
However, in manufacturing, the concept of agility comes into its own as a result of changes over the centuries due mainly to:
- technological evolution: new technologies make it possible to reconfigure a system much more rapidly
- evolution in the production approach: more and more flexibility is demanded in the face of greater variability in demand in terms of volume and production mix
- evolution in the customer needs, who demands increasingly customized products tailored to his or her specific needs (mass parsonalization, the real goal of the fourth industrial revolution).
Reactivity VS Productive mix
To get a clearer idea of what Agile Manufacturing is, then, we refer to Figure 1, which illustrates the paradigm shift required within companies, as reported in the article “A changing paradigm,”  in which the author identifies 4 evolutionary stages based on 2 dimensions:
- Responsiveness according to surrounding changes
- Production mix
Beginning with the lower right quadrant, the dinosaur represents the productive organization associated with the pre-industrial stage, which was characterized by high product mix but rather low responsiveness. Merchants worked on the basis of individual relationships, and production was essentially on order, at low volumes and with delivery times typical of artisanal (i.e., high) production.
Moving to the lower left quadrant, the mule represents instead the mass production typical of the second industrial revolution characterized by low product mix, high volumes, but same low responsiveness as the previous system.
Moving instead to the upper left quadrant, thanks to Lean’s own concepts, the responsiveness of companies increases, yet there remains a “ballast” associated with the still limited ability to evolve toward mass customization. This concept is represented by the horse with jockey.
Finally, the top right quadrant shows the latest evolution represented by the lizard, which is capable of reacting to surrounding changes extremely quickly.
Agility thus represents the natural evolution from an economy of scale to an economy of purpose, where the focus is on satisfying the tastes and needs of individual customers or end users rather than simply reducing costs and improving the characteristics of a standardized product.
Finally, Goldman  in his article “Agile Competitors and Virtual Organizations” summarizes a number of benefits associated with the concept of agility in manufacturing firms:
- Rapid response to demand variability
- Increased productivity
- Improved product and service quality
- Better utilization of capital and higher return on investment (ROI)
- Increased knowledge of customer needs
- Enabling the concept of “single-piece flow”
- Integration of the supply chain within Product Development
- Reduction in indirect costs
- Increased time and opportunity for management to address and solve problems
- Increased robustness of industrial processes
How to enable agility in a production system?
An Agile Production System is made possible through (but not limited to!) the concept of the Smart Factory. Padhi  provides a definition of the Smart Factory that essentially replicates the benefits of the agile systems outlined above, but introduces the use of so-called “smart” technologies:
“an optimized manufacturing facility capable of
- facilitate the launch of new products according to market dynamics,
- is sufficiently scalable to meet the variation in demand for existing products,
- is capable of producing finished products at minimum cost,
- has intelligent machines, sensors and robots seamlessly integrated with the information system architecture to enable a high level of automation in transaction processing, and
- has real-time analytics to help minimize downtime and improve efficiency.
A smart factory creates an ecosystem where there is strong collaboration among all key players, e.g., Suppliers, operations team, IT team, planning team, sales and marketing team, and customers. It creates a single platform where multiple business functions such as Procurement, Planning, Production, Sales and Distribution, Finance and Accounting work together to achieve overall business goals.”
The first part of this definition has to do with the purpose: facilitating production mix, compensating for variation in market demand, and minimizing costs. The second part, on the other hand, explains how to achieve it, namely by introducing integrated, intelligent automated systems that can readjust the production system automatically and autonomously (thanks to real-time analysis of so-called big data). Such a system is also characterized by a high level of collaboration among all business entities at the system design stage (Concurrent Engineering) and a high level of integration at the information systems level.
The technical basis of an Intelligent Factory is the so-called cyber-physical systems (CPS) that can communicate with each other with the help of the Internet of Things (IoT). Part of this future scenario continues to be the communication between the product (e.g., workpiece) and the production plant: the product itself carries its production information in machine-readable form . This data is used to control the product’s path through the production plant and individual production steps.
Technology is not enough, we must first eliminate waste
A smart, flexible production system that can be reconfigured in minimal time requires the elimination of all unnecessary operations that only go to increase the inefficiency of the system and thus slow it down. Therefore, it becomes essential to go in and eliminate such inefficiencies, or waste.
In the Lean view, a waste, referred to by the Japanese term Muda, is an activity that adds no value to the good produced or service. Traditionally, 8 types of Muda can be identified, which, exploiting English terminology, we can memorize through the acronym TIMWOODS. With this acronym we are going to list the 8 main wastes according to the principles of Lean Manufacturing:
- Transportation – are the recurring costs associated with excessive transportation of material/semi-finished goods with associated equipment (non-recurring costs), such as lifting equipment, trolleys, cranes, etc.
- Inventory – costs associated with excessive material storage, from space to unused raw material costs
- Motion – similarly to transportation, accounts for costs associated with the unsolicited handling of material, such as during an assembly operation
- Waiting – are the costs associated with the waiting time for example of a semifinished product waiting to be processed
- Overprocessing – are costs associated with processing that is not required, that is, that does not add value to the product or that can be eliminated through optimization activities
- Overproduction – are all those costs associated with a PUSH rather than PULL production system, with higher WIP, so material in work, space required, storage, which is not actually required by the customer
- Defects – non-quality costs, particularly related to management and rework
- Skills – the eighth waste refers to the costs associated with the lack of associated skills to perform a job properly
The 10 Principles of Agile Manufacturing
In much the same way as Agile Software Development, it is possible to list some guidelines in Agile Manufacturing development:
- The highest priority is to satisfy the customer through the delivery of valuable goods according to unique requirements defined by market needs
- Changing requirements, even during advanced development, is not a critical issue. Agile processes leverage change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
- Concurrent engineering is preparatory to agile manufacturing: product and process designers collaborate synergistically to implement agile systems
- Agility requires the design of setups that can reconfigure the system as quickly and autonomously as possible.
Integrated, short, near-site supply chains improve resilience and speed responsiveness to change
- New technologies, mostly digital, enhance Lean principles in order to eliminate anything that is not of value to the customer.
- Decentralization improves the efficiency of decision making, increases motivation and creativity by giving more responsibility to lower-level managers.
- Increased complexity brings risks that must be minimized through a multidisciplinary approach and to appropriate risk management
- Without quality there can be no agility. It therefore becomes critical to develop robust process capabilities
- Innovation, change management and lifelong training at all levels are key elements of agile manufacturing
In this post, we have seen how the concept of Agile Manufacturing originated in the area of software development, where speed and flexibility become key determinants of a development team’s success. Similarly, in manufacturing, flexibility and speed become key concepts for improving quality, reducing costs and development time under high volume and production mix.
To develop agile production systems, 2 paths must be followed:
- Use the technology at our disposal, particularly of a digital and automation-related nature, but not only
- Eliminate all waste upstream in order to avoid automating it
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