The key advantages — and challenges — of agile manufacturing
By Matt Schroeder, Manager, Technical Business Development
Agile, an operational framework that prioritizes cross-functionality, collaboration, and flexibility, was initially created by and for software developers. However, its unique methodologies can be applied across industries to elevate operational efficiency and increase both short- and long-term value.
Agile has become increasingly relevant in the manufacturing space — and understandably so. Organizations that implement agile into their manufacturing processes can achieve more flexible supply chains, more efficient operations, shorter production times, and increase their ability to meet rapidly-changing customer demands.
The most notable tenet of agile manufacturing is responsiveness, and rapidly-shifting market conditions make responsiveness crucial in today’s manufacturing landscape for several reasons. Firstly, manufacturers must be responsive to market demand, continually innovating to meet changing customer needs. Consumers demand greater variety than in years past; in the automobile industry, for example, consumers expect more vehicle variants and shorter model cycles than ever before.
Secondly, manufacturers must have responsive supply chains, allowing them to reduce costs of operation and mitigate supply risk. A minor disruption in one portion of the supply chain can cause a ripple effect, hampering a manufacturer’s ability to meet demand and satisfy customers.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic evidences the need for not only supply chain resiliency, but also flexibility. For example, in response to changing needs brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, Fast Radius was able to quickly pivot into manufacturing reusable face shields for frontline healthcare workers.
What agile manufacturing looks like in practice
In any industry, if a customer needs change or a competitor releases a new product, it is imperative to adapt quickly. Agile offers such flexibility; product modularity, for example, a design strategy for agile manufacturing, allows for products to be altered or customized quickly and at a low cost.
Of course, enabling this degree of flexibility requires substantial up-front technology investment, as well as a commitment to data-driven decision-making. Effectively leveraging data-based insights is important at every stage of the implementation of agile manufacturing.
But it’s important to note that shifting to an agile manufacturing model often requires rethinking nearly every aspect of the manufacturing process, from product design and prototyping to vendor management, production, and fulfillment.
Agile in practice requires iterative project “sprints” that are a major divergence from more traditional, linear approaches to product development and manufacturing. Additionally, it requires cross-functional collaboration between teams to move projects quickly to the next stage. Organizational support and buy-in at every level is critical to the success of agile in manufacturing. Perhaps most importantly, agile demands ongoing adaptability; employees must be prepared to alter course as new information presents itself.
Change management is difficult, so it is critical to ensure agile solves for identified customer and organizational needs. Scaling agile methodologies across an entire manufacturing operation generally requires, among other things, modernized data analytics capabilities, robust employee training, a reevaluation of vendor relationships, and development of new processes across the business. Agile can be a large change from how many manufacturing companies operate. But, the payoff is often worth the initial investment. That’s why agile is already the most popular project management methodology in manufacturing.
That said, an agile transformation isn’t right for every organization — some components of agile may be helpful for some companies or industries and not for others, and it’s vital to consider whether agile or more traditional, linear methodologies like waterfall are a better fit.
Initiating an agile transformation
Here at Fast Radius, our agile working model makes us more efficient and better equipped to respond to customer needs. If you’re ready to see agile manufacturing in action on your next project, contact us today.