Flexible Manufacturing: The Holy Grail? by Mary Scianna
In September, GM announced it would convert part of a Tennessee plant into a flexible operation. The announcement is the latest by the Detroit Three who in the past decade have spent billions to upgrade assembly plants and create more flexible manufacturing operations that can build and assemble multiple body styles from one or two basic platforms.
Flexible manufacturing makes sense because it allows manufacturers to respond more quickly to a market’s changing needs. It’s not a new concept; large successful job shops—think Magna International—have built their operations around the ability to respond quickly to their OEM customers’ sometimes finicky and frequently changing needs.
The concept is the manufacturing industry’s Holy Grail. As more OEMs continue to incorporate more flexibility into their manufacturing operations, what will it mean for component, fixtures and tooling suppliers who support them?
For one, suppliers with high volume manufacturing processes who support large OEMs such as automotive will have to rethink their manufacturing processes. If the order for those 25,000 same engine components suddenly changes to 5,000 for five different engines, can your machining operation handle the change and can it do it cost effectively and competitively? If not, what do you need to do to ensure that you can respond quickly to this change?
The idea behind flexible manufacturing is to better utilize the manufacturing equipment you have under changing market conditions and customer demands. How you do that is by improving productivity. You improve productivity by maximizing the use of existing equipment either through machine upgrades or by changing the machining processes, or you invest in new equipment that allows you to manufacture products faster.
Flexible manufacturing may not be suitable for everyone; those that can embrace this growing movement will reap the rewards of success.
Mary Scianna, Editor, Shop Metalworking Technology Magazine