If you’re familiar with software development, you may have heard of the “agile” method of development. The agile approach embraces rapid movement from creating an idea to executing it while retaining what works and discarding what doesn’t. By applying agility to their processes, companies work within a rapid response timeframe to address customers’ needs in order to gain a competitive advantage over other businesses.

What you might not know is that the agile method can be applied to manufacturing. When done right, agile manufacturing allows suppliers to provide customers with what they want, when they want it and often for the price they want, faster than conventional manufacturing processes.

Implementing an agile manufacturing plan, however, doesn’t happen overnight. It will likely require a key shift in thinking amongst all members of the organization. Primarily, people must think in terms of fluidity and speed, not standard processes. Below we’ll examine the key tenets of agile manufacturing and review how to implement one in your organization.

How Is Agile Manufacturing Different?

Agile manufacturing as a model is built on four key elements. They are:

  1. Modular Product Design: In its most basic terms, this means designing in a way that allows for its easy modification or variation. Instead of making the widget out of one piece of molded plastic, perhaps there is a way to make it into a few pieces so that updates or modifications can be added quickly.
  2. Information Technology: Primarily, this involves improving and automating the dissemination of information throughout the company. With quick and clear information, all employees can respond quickly and efficiently to client requests and orders.
  3. Corporate Partners: Leveraging short-term relationships with other companies that can help your organization go to market more quickly than your competitors. For example, for someone in the U.S. hoping to enter Canada, this might involve developing a partnership with a Canadian company that can more quickly serve that market.
  4. Knowledge Culture: This might be the biggest key to agile manufacturing. Investing in training that emphasizes and supports a culture built on rapid change and ongoing adaptation. Some employees will embrace this way of thinking and have very little trouble adapting. Others may find the constant rate of change challenging. Either way, it’s important to provide employees with all the proper tools so you can quickly determine who is and who is not a cultural fit.

What Are the Benefits Associated with Agile Manufacturing?

The primary benefit is speed. By adjusting your manufacturing process to one built on modular product design, you can more easily—and quickly—respond to customer needs. This reduces the time it might take to design a brand new product to meet customer demand. It also allows you to simply modify the current product to address changing markets.

Automating your processes is the key tactic in increasing your speed. This allows you to reduce your inventory levels as there would, ideally, be no wasted pieces on an automated line. Smaller inventory reduces overhead costs because you do not need to store as much product. It also might reduce your tax burden. This overall cost reduction can then be passed on to the consumer, making your organization even more competitive.

How to Implement Agile Manufacturing?

Here’s a high-level overview of the steps you might take if you are thinking of implementing an agile process.

1. Research

It’s important to fully understand the amount of work you are undertaking, the costs involved and the pros and cons of shifting your organization’s way of doing business. If they’re available and willing to talk, ask other companies how their transition went, what challenges they faced and if they feel the upfront investment was worth it. You also must determine if your current production process can be fully automated to fit the model.

2. Appoint a Task Force

More than likely, the research required to make a decision—as well as quantifying the time needed to implement it—will be a long process, and will further require dedication from a core group of individuals.

Assemble the people you feel are best suited to this kind of work and then give them the time, space and materials to get the job done. Allow them to carve time out of their schedule by shifting job responsibilities around or deprioritizing certain initiatives. Ask for regular updates and provide a reasonable deadline for when you’d like all the information submitted.

3. Examine Your Current Supplier Relationships

A big component of agile manufacturing is having strong supplier relationships across many different geographic and industrial areas. If you don’t have strong relationships with suppliers now, or have found it challenging to maintain ongoing relationships with vendors, then it might be time to reevaluate your vendor selection and vendor management process.

4. Create a Long-Term Plan

Implementing an agile manufacturing process will take time. With the help of your task force, lay out the plan, making sure it includes benchmarks, milestones and contingencies. If there is an unforeseen obstacle or holdup with the implementation process, the delays could be costly.

Agile manufacturing is not ideal for all companies. But for those that can make it work, it does offer a significant return on investment. If you think this may be the right choice for you and your business, take the time to really explore the possibilities and determine if it’s feasible and cost-effective.

If you’re interested in learning more about manufacturing products, read our article on understanding the product life cycle.

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