This article examines the forces of globalization and competition that are driving the need for manufacturing companies to be agile in order to stay competitive. The technological enablers of agility, which share a common reconfigurability, are explained including enterprise management systems, engineering systems, manufacturing systems, and manufacturing planning and control systems. The use of computer technology to schedule work in the manufacturing environment, to manage workflow, and to coordinate the movement of materials is also explained. The evolution of standards in data exchange for manufacturing is reviewed, along with the development of structured product design processes.
Keywords: Agile Manufacturing; Business-to-Business (B2B); Computer Aided Design (CAD); Computer Aided Engineering (CAE); Computer Numerical Control (CNC); Convertibility; Integrability; Modularity; Reconfigurable Manufacturing; Scalability; Supply Chain Systems
Not long ago, manufacturers had greater control over the supply chain because they controlled the pace at which products were manufactured and thus when they entered the supply chain. Globalization, competition, and technology have now converged to the point where manufacturers no longer set the pace and customers now rule the markets through their buying power and through purchasing from competing manufacturers or suppliers. Many manufacturers are now scrambling to meet customer demands for options, styles and features as well as quick fulfillment and fast delivery. Companies that have learned how to improve management of their production systems to meet demand, and changes in demand, have developed a competitive advantage and work hard to maintain that advantage (Uribe, Cochran, & Shunk, 2003).
As this evolution has taken place, the concepts of 'lean' and 'agile' have been applied in industry. Lean focuses on eliminating or reducing any activity or expenditure that does not add value to a company's operations (Pham & Thomas, 2005). Lean worked well enough in high volume, low variety and predictable environments (Harris, 2004). Agility was born out of necessity to deal with the issues of volatile markets and irregular demand patterns (Pham and Thomas, 2005). Manufacturing automation and computer aided design helped to drive the lean and agile movement by allowing reusability of designs and processes and to provide faster reconfiguration of manufacturing systems.
A reconfigurable manufacturing system (RMS) is designed for easy and fast changes in system configuration including rearrangement of equipment, reallocation of workers, or retooling of machines (Xiaobo, Wang & Luo, 2001). To maximize the competitive advantage of an RMS the manufacturing environment as a whole must be easily upgradeable and have the ability to assimilate new products and rapidly adjust system capacity as market demands change. The manufacturing environment should also have the ability to absorb new process technologies as well as new managerial practices (Singh, Khilwani & Tiwari, 2007).
Computer technology has enabled the agile movement by allowing reusability of designs and processes and to provide faster reconfiguration of manufacturing systems. Agility, and reconfigurable technology allows companies to produce customized products in a short time at low cost (Liao & Liao, 2008). The various computer technologies that improve efficiency and accuracy in manufacturing including CAE, CAD, CAM, CNC, ERP, and SCMS are becoming ubiquitous in manufacturing industries.
One of the major goals of agile manufacturing is to produce customized products in a short time at low cost (Liao & Liao, 2008). Agility in manufacturing helps to reduce material costs, maximize expenditures for human resources, minimize idle inventory, and improve facility or machine utilization (Anuziene & Bargelis, 2007). Flexibility is the key to productivity in reconfigurable agile manufacturing systems compared to previous designed manufacturing systems (Calvo, Domingo & Sebastiãn, 2008).
Agile manufacturing requires control of manufacturing systems as well as a design process that supports a modular manufacturing operation. Thus, to realize the benefits of an RMS and to achieve high levels of agility, consideration must be given to the design of products and components and how that design can best be manufactured in an agile environment (Kusiak & He, 1997).
Design for agility and agile manufacturing requires product grouping which allows for concurrent design and development of product families as well as faster and less expensive manufacturing and assembly systems and processes (McCurry & McIvor, 2002; Abdi & Labib, 2004). The level of agility achieved in a manufacturing environment can thus be improved by addressing the interrelationships between manufacturing components and the design of the items being manufactured (Yusuf & Adeleye, 2002; Jiang & Fung, 2003).
Another key factor in maximizing the success of agile reconfigurable manufacturing is the scheduling, or delaying of product differentiation in the machining and assembly process. With a delayed product differentiation strategy common and simple parts are created at the machining stage and put in queue for the assembly stage. This allows the assembly of different or customized products to be grouped and assembly postponed until the schedule requires or when a large enough number of customized products has accumulated so that reconfiguration is convenient or more cost effective (He & Babayan, 2002). Manufacturing scheduling helps to control costs and maintains profit margin which is absolutely necessary because, simply put, achieving agility without achieving profit is not a sustainable competitive strategy (Gunasekaran & Yusuf, 2002).
The basic axiom underlying the concept of agility is the ability to respond to change by implementing necessary reconfigurations of manufacturing systems and processes. Some changes can be anticipated such as the need to reconfigure for delayed assembly management. In other cases a company may plan or create change when installing new technologies. However, some changes such as disruptions in operations cannot be predicted because of supply problems or natural disasters. There are also circumstances that may not only be unpredictable but can also be unprecedented such as the rapidly widespread economic downturns or terrorist attacks that cause extensive physical, economic or social damages (Sharifi, Colquhoun, Barclay & Dann, 2001).
Building a Reconfigurable Agile Manufacturing System
Agility just does not happen by itself. An agile manufacturing firm needs information systems that inherently support agile business processes as well as agile manufacturing systems. (Weston, 1998; Ross, 2003). The use of computer numerical control (CNC) manufacturing equipment of all types eases reconfiguration of equipment and helps to minimize the cost of reconfiguration (Herrin, 1997; Lee, Harrison & West, 2005). In addition, the use of technologies that improve efficiency and accuracy can help reduce waste caused by defects in manufacturing, under-utilization of resources, or over production caused by poor planning (Shipulski, 2009).
Agile manufacturing companies rely heavily on automation, including:
- Enterprise information systems that are readily capable of supporting an agile manufacturing environment including sales, service, human resource management, logistics mostly commonly achieved through the use of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software suites.
- Computerization of the design and manufacturing process through computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacturing (CAM), and computer aided engineering (CAE) software.
- Computer numerical control of individual pieces of equipment as well as groups of equipment through numerical control (CNC).
- Computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) systems connect and integrate the various machines and systems within the manufacturing process.
- Supply chain management systems that tie together all of the companies in a supply chain.
ERP Software Integrates Data from the Enterprise
ERP systems are integrated software suites that allow data to be used by various different modules within the system. ERP systems are constantly evolving and functionality has been expanded over the last twenty years. The ultimate goal of an ERP system is to provide cross-functional support to any department within an organization without that department needing to create new smaller systems to meet its information processing needs. The implementation of an ERP system often requires standardizing terminology across an organization so that enterprise-wide databases can be established and maintained (El Amrani, Rowe & Geffroy-Maronnat, 2006).
Over a period of several decades, Material Requirements Planning (MRP) systems for inventory control and later Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP II) technology for shop-floor scheduling and coordination evolved and were integrated into large software suites that could help manage an entire enterprise. The newer ERP systems can help control and manage an entire manufacturing facility including production, purchasing, finance, human resources, engineering, and logistics (Kempfer, 1998).
The major technology driving changes in manufacturing processes during the last several decades has been computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, and computer-aided engineering (Vasilash, 1998). These systems support the manufacturing process from the engineering phase through production. CAD/CAM workstations provide designers with the ability to use libraries of stored designs, information about parts, materials, tooling, and production. These systems help to achieve and maintain modularity, scalability, integrability, and convertibility which helps streamline design and manufacturing in an economically reusable manner, enabling manufacturers to be more agile (Singh, Khilwani & Tiwari, 2007).
CAE systems help engineers design a wide variety of products while CAD systems can help designers document and present their designs using three dimensional tools and parametric drawings. CAD systems provide specialized support for architects, civil engineers, controls designers, mechanical engineers, manufacturing environments, and fabrication shops. There are also systems that simulate and help to optimize part, mold, and tool designs before manufacturing begins, including designing factory layouts ("Autodesk Products," 2009).
CAM systems can translate the designs and specifications created with CAE and CAD systems into production process using computer numerical control (CNC) features and technologies which control individual as well as groups of machines that are required to produce an item. These systems can have a positive impact on manufacturing cost, quality, and delivery time. The deployment of equipment with an open architecture design eases system migration allowing new control features to be added as the equipment and the control technology evolves. CNC technology also provides greater accuracy and equipment can be operated at higher speeds (Herrin, 1997).
The computers that run the control software for manufacturing machines can also be networked, allowing manufacturing personnel to update systems software or change control programs over the network as opposed to one machine at a time. The CNC systems can also be set up to run self-diagnostics and provide error logs for problems that occur during operation.
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