Lean and Flexible Manufacturing: Do We Need to Choose Between the Two?

posted on: Friday April 5, 2013

When researching the most innovative and successful manual material handling (MMH) solutions, results consistently point to automotive giants. Toyota is credited for having pioneered today’s Lean manufacturing. Lean, along with Just in Time, focuses on increasing efficiency and decreasing waste. Many businesses are finding success with these models. As with anything, however, one model does not serve all industries or purposes. Flexible manufacturing is structured to adapt to change. In the end, this offers more options for the consumer but is also more expensive.  The question is whether Lean and Flexible manufacturing can be used to together. Ford and Chrysler have exemplified it is possible to successfully combine the two.

As it turns out, many businesses are able to combine Lean and Flexible for the best of both worlds. Lean manufacturing streamlines processes, but can limit options for the consumer. DSC_6717Flexible manufacturing adapts to accommodate more options for the customer, but costs more for the business. For some companies, parts of the operation are separate enough that either lean or flexible manufacturing can be applied where appropriate. On one side, parts may be constructed according to the lean model. Meanwhile, assembling the parts, say to create different models of cars, may follow a flexible format. Flexible manufacturing in the automotive industry includes sophisticated equipment that recognizes the differences between two cars on the line. This expensive automated equipment is not the only way to achieve a flexible operation, however.

One impressive example of flexible manufacturing is the mobile workstation. In ehstoday.com’s “Workstations for Flexible Manufacturing Provide Ergonomic Benefits,” Alan Brown describes how assembly lines can be redesigned to react to changes. He explains how carts replace a conveyor. He writes, “The carts travel to and from the warehouse or dock using small motorized carts or tuggers rather than 5-ton forklifts, which can be a safety hazard to employees on the factory floor. As for productivity, no coordination needs to be made between the assembly worker and the next cart coming up to the line. As the employee deals with the cart at hand, the next cart can be brought up at any time to the vicinity of the work area. When ready for the next cart, the worker moves the previous cart out the way to be picked up by the next tugger that happens to pass by the area. Work never has to slow down or stop to shuttle cart loads. In addition, these carts maneuver easily in cramped areas that would eat up time for even a skilled forklift driver.”

One exciting element of this example is that it utilizes something that’s also integral to the Lean process: the power tugger. This piece of equipment is known for many things in the MMH industry: substitute for forklifts, boost to productivity, reduction of fatigue and injury, cost-efficiency, and improved safety to name a few. Since the greatest downside to Flexible manufacturing is cost, finding equipment that crosses over between models can be a game-changer.

One piece of equipment certainly won’t bring about all of the machine flexibility and routing flexibility that are fundamental to the flexible format. However, the practicality of the tugger can lend to more flexibility overall to create a unique operation. As a Chrysler representative says, “Executives must ask themselves what operational excellence should look like in their organization, and then develop their own ‘system’ for operational excellence.”

Every business has different capabilities to adopt lean or flexible manufacturing fundamentals. If a company can use equipment that itself is adaptable, possibilities for excellence can really open up. Toyota was built on the principles of continuous improvement and respect for the people. The powered tug fits both of these principles and has been an integral part of many companies’ unique “operational excellence.” When it comes to combining Lean and Flexible mentalities, the end result is a consumer who can afford a product without forfeiting customization.

Load Movers Inc is a proud to offer power tuggers used by many businesses in their efforts to continually improve for operational excellence. Find us at http://www.loadmoverinc.com/.