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Agile manufacturing is the ability to quickly and at little cost reconfigure a production environment. The concept's advocates recognizes that the prospect of unanticipated change is the only constant. To embrace change, you gotta change your system concepts.

The Department of Defense (DoD) has already decided to concern itself with agile manufacturing. You might consider this an unexpected bonus of the peace divided. DoD's having less money to work with is changing its procurrent technology. Revised strategy will emphasize new product science and technologies opposed to large-scale production. The plan calls for continued feasibility demonstrations to advance new technologies, while limiting manufacture of production quantities, unless deployment is needed.

But while there are distinct advantages to emphasizing research and deployment, it's inevitable that the production base will shrink as a result. Industrial facilities will been to be retooled for nondefense industries. Production expertise in weapons systems might prove to be unavailable when the need for it arises. To avoid a big-time crumble mode when defense production capabilities are again needed, the DoD knows it has to be able to rapidly respond. Agile manufacturing will provide DoD with the rapid response capability it needs.

In the private sector, agility is a priority, just as it is for defense provision. For Detroit to win its economic battles, it has no less need for agile response capability than does the DoD. Incorporation of technology that enables an agile response on the part of manufactures and their suppliers will assure success in both defense and in international commerce.

What will these technologies enable? They will allow technologies to rapidly integrate concurrent-engineering efforts and to change systems and products across the entire supplier community; to ramp up quickly in the face of sudden need; to rebuild quickly in the face of downsized facilities and lack of trained personnel; and to engage in small- and single -lot production without significant cost penalty.

The needed technologies and their associated management practices are already here. What technology are they? Well, historically, machinery was customized and software was generic. Now it's the reverse. The "iron" is generic and the software is highly application-specific. Software defines the system. The new technologies of object and Symbolic manipulation are here and available.

Significant progress is being made in advancing agile manufacturing concepts. In addition to my own work in parallel processors at Flavors Technology, Mark Roth of Allen-Bradley is working on autonomous module architecture's. Roger Schappell from Martin Marietta is working on schedulers. David Greenstein from GM is already demonstrating a very flexible manufacturing system. Steve Benson has reports that Digital Equipment has defined generic encapsulated manufacturing modules for electronic assembly. My own mentor for agile systems has been Rick Dove of Paradigm Shift. A lot of the info in this column was supplied by him. Benson's work with industry, the National Committee of Manufacturing Science (NCMS) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will, we anticipate, lead to the deployment of truly agile systems that have application from the factory floor to the total supplier infrastructure.

Very briefly, there are a number of issues that adhere to the topic of agile systems. First, the need for agile systems must be recognized. There exists a certain amount of mistrust between academia and industry, and in some respects industry is ahead of the research community on this important issue. Unfortunately, the track record for those brave few who are the first to deploy a new technology has been very poor at times. Finally, the perceived cost of implementing agile systems have to be looked at very carefully.

Agility in manufacturing systems will reduce start-up times and costs. Agility will enable a robust supplier network. Surge capacity, an important market issue, will be significantly improved. Once effective models for rapid deployment and development are fully articulated, DoD will be able to design products without going into full production. Should the time come, God forbid, DoD will, however be able to ramp up quickly.

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine September 1992 Page 42

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