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Flexible Manufacturing: Adapting Quickly to Changing Markets and Events

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Flexibility is a goal for many manufacturers, and with good reason. Across industry segments, the organisations that have been able to demonstrate flexible operating models are claiming industry-leading positions as a result.

Think of Amazon and Alibaba’s commitment to innovating customer experience, or how automotive manufacturers are adapting to regulation for lowering carbon emissions. Flexible trumps rigid in the face of new circumstances and market conditions.

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But what does it mean to be a flexible manufacturer? Flexibility is about speed to adapt. It’s about creating a seamless flow from need to delivery, decision to implementation and challenge to solution.

True flexibility empowers manufacturers to stay in tune with their market, replacing rigid and static operating models with levels of control and responsiveness never previously possible.

Flexibility is about much more than simply technology. Yes, technology is at the heart of transformation and is continually driving and enabling new ways of innovating. Technology alone, however, cannot bring change at speed without the support of a flexible organisational framework. For this reason, you must look beyond the nuts and bolts in order to identify the areas that will enable flexible operations in your organisation.

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Gaining Focus

The starting point for increased flexibility is to identify where potential barriers and bottlenecks may exist. This requires you to undertake a comprehensive review of every area that contributes to how you meet your market’s needs. Such oversight allows not only for frictions to be resolved, but for resources to be better allocated for ongoing organisational improvement.

In working with our customers, we normally start with the following areas:

  • Technology

At a technical level, greater flexibility can be found through embracing intelligent systems. For many decades, manufacturing was premised on static, disconnected production lines controlled by often-unwieldy operational technology (OT) systems.

Now, in an era of digitisation, manufacturers can blend OT systems with IT in order to open up opportunities for data collection and analysis, down to ever-more granular levels of detail. This analysis can then be used adapt and refine operations in a self-enhancing feedback loop as the systems are utilised.

  • Skills

One of the most fundamental mistakes a manufacturer can make is to focus so narrowly on technology that they are oblivious to the human element. Skilled operators, engineers and analysts are just some of the personnel needed for flexible production. Advanced capabilities are of limited use if your personnel are unable to capitalise on those capabilities. Specialisation and a commitment to upskilling therefore support a flexible approach by ensuring technological change can move in lockstep with resource capabilities.

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  • Executive Support

Flexibility is also about decision-making structures. The decision to produce a new product in light of fresh customer demands, or to switch off a previously-profitable product line in response to evident market shifts, needs to be made swiftly and collaboratively. Having executive sponsors on board, preferably with a broad representation of the business’ units and underpinned by clear governance frameworks, can greatly increase the odds of an innovation project’s success.

  • Consumption Models

One of the most notable business trends of the past decade has been the shift to subscription-based consumption models. We’ve seen this in the apps and online services we use, and no we’re seeing the same approach applied to previously capital-intensive areas. Owning physical machinery is a huge undertaking, and serves to lock the manufacturer into the asset across its lifecycle. For greater flexibility, manufacturers are finding a Machine-as-a-Service approach can help drive OpEx efficiencies, with an increased ability to upgrade or change as new capabilities come on to the market.

  • Market Understanding

The final area relates to customer understanding. Conventionally, in many organisations, marketing has been seen as a siloed function, responsible for increasing sales without any direct input into the product. That approach is no longer practical. Now, to be a step ahead of the market, sales and marketing must be tied directly into manufacturing. By understanding who the customer is, what they want (right now) and how they want it delivered, production can be continually adapted to deliver on those wants. This applies not only to product features and quality, but extends to issues around ethical and sustainable practices, which are increasingly significant customer concerns.

Blog: Gain Flexibility, Productivity with Modern Batch Systems.

Going Live, Scaling Fast

Addressing inflexibility in each of these key areas can help create a solid foundation upon which to build and operate. We help our customers assess each of these areas in their own business and propose solutions for improvement.

Using a broad network of partners, we then help design and initiate a proof of concept, which allows our customers to stress test the idea in a live environment. This normally involves upfront investment and resource allocation to maintain the new operations for several months and track performance.

Once the effectiveness of the concept has been evidenced, and complementary processes have been established around the lines, we help our customers scale up to full production.

Flexible by Design

In shaping the manufacturing environments of a smarter, more customer-centric era, flexibility is as much as mindset as it is a tangible means for coordinating production.

Adapting to changing market conditions, both in terms of short-term shocks and longer-term trends, needs a mentality that doesn’t cling to past investments and ways of working, and that’s willing to embrace the new in order to reap the rewards. That means moving faster – not only as a single production line but as an entire organisation – and that speed can only come from flexible foundations.

Paolo Butti
Paolo Butti
Director Industry and OEM - EMEA, Rockwell Automation
Paolo leads a team of highly experienced Industry Managers and OEM Segment Leaders, as well Strategic Account Managers. He coordinates our strategy and execution plan, driving key plays, selecting key focused accounts and balancing short term goals with mid-long term achievements within core industries and segments. Paolo has a discrete manufacturing background across a wide range of industries and functions. He joined Rockwell Automation in 2012, after 5 years in Comau (part of Fiat Chrysler Group), working as an automation domain expert on vehicle production systems and robotics. He received his PH.D in Electronics Engineering from the Politecnico di Milano in 1997.

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