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International Journal of Operations & Production Management

Emerald Article: An agenda for research on the flexibility of manufacturing processes Donald Gerwin

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To cite this document: Donald Gerwin, (2005),"An agenda for research on the flexibility of manufacturing processes", International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 25 Iss: 12 pp. 1171 - 1182 Permanent link to this document: Downloaded on: 01-04-2012 References: This document contains references to 21 other documents Citations: This document has been cited by 1 other documents To copy this document: This document has been downloaded 2074 times.

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An agenda for research on the exibility of manufacturing processes

Donald Gerwin
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
Purpose This paper, originally published in 1987, seeks to outline an agenda for conducting rigorous research into the exibility of manufacturing processes. Design/methodology/approach An initial domain for dening exibility is established, specic measures are suggested, and sampling issues are discussed. There is also a discussion of relevant research problems that can be addressed once valid and reliable operationalisations exist. Findings Its underlying premise is that current efforts are being impeded by the absence of operational measures for the concept. Originality/value A useful historical perspective on manufacturing processes. Keywords Management research, Manufacturing industries, Flexible manufacturing systems Paper type Conceptual paper

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Received November 1985 Revised April 1986

Introduction The issue of manufacturing exibility is assuming increasing importance in production management. The need for exibility is growing due to the changing nature of competition, which is based more than ever on constantly improving the technical characteristics of products and being responsive to differing customer requirements. The capability to augment exibility has presumably been enhanced by the introduction of programmable automation. Process equipment controlled by computers and related devices can be readily adapted to a variety of uses. However, we know very little about the implications of exibility for manufacturing management. Part of the problem arises from a lack of operational measures of exibility. This article, which demonstrates how it would be possible to develop such measures, provides directions for future research rather than a report of work already implemented or in the process of being implemented. Once measures exist then manufacturing managers can better understand the kind and extent of exibility embedded in their production processes. They can make more informed choices on new equipment. At present, inability to quantify the benets of programmable automation is a signicant limitation on its purchase Rosenthal (1984). Vendors of manufacturing processes would be better able to develop designs that meet the needs of users.
This article was rst published in IJOPM Volume 7 Issue 1 (1987), pp. 38-49. It has been included here as part of the 25th anniversary issue of the journal. I am grateful to Der-Ann Hsu for his helpful comments.

International Journal of Operations & Production Management Vol. 25 No. 12, 2005 pp. 1171-1182 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0144-3577 DOI 10.1108/01443570510633576

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Researchers would be in a better position to test critical hypotheses. Some examples of research problems that could be addressed are discussed in the last section. Dening manufacturing exibility A basic issue that must be resolved in dening manufacturing exibility is the level at which it is to be considered. The alternatives include: . the individual machine or manufacturing system; . the manufacturing function such as forming, cutting or assembling; . the manufacturing process for a single product or group of related ones; . the factory; and . perhaps the companys entire factory system. At each level the domain of the exibility concept may be different and alternative means of achieving exibility will be available. The basic level of the individual machine or manufacturing system has been selected here on the assumption that a bottoms-up approach may be the most fruitful. Starting from the level which is easiest to study, should facilitate the tasks of denition and operationalisation. The knowledge gained can serve as the basis for subsequent work at other levels. Once more, the resulting exibility scales could be directly applied to the critical and timely problems of evaluating and selecting production equipment. Finally, there exist in the United States comprehensive lists of different kinds of manufacturing equipment available through the Bureau of the Census and the National Machine Tool Builders Association which are invaluable in identifying a population to be sampled. There exists no rigorous method for identifying the domain of managerial concepts such as manufacturing exibility. The approach advocated here, which has developed over the last few years (Gerwin, n.d.; Gerwin and Tarondeau, n.d.; Gerwin and Leung, 1980), is based on the limited amount of relevant theory and on interviews with representatives of vendors and users of production equipment, and on the assumption that social systems facing uncertainty utilise exibility as an adaptive response. In other words, exibility is the ability to respond effectively to changing circumstances (Mandelbaum, 1978; Zelenovic, 1982). It is, therefore, necessary to examine the uncertainty faced by manufacturing managers in order to understand the exibility that is built into manufacturing processes. Since there are several kinds of uncertainty that typically need to be handled, exibility should have a number of corresponding aspects. Conversations with managers supported this notion for they used the term in several ways. Table I represents an attempt to identify the domain by indicating seven different sets of uncertainties and associated exibilities: (1) Uncertainty as to which products will be accepted by customers created a need for mix exibility which is the ability of a manufacturing process to produce a number of different products at the same point in time. (2) Uncertainty as to the length of product life cycles leads to changeover exibility which is the ability of a process to deal with additions to and subtractions from the mix over time. (3) Uncertainty as to which particular attributes customers want may arise at the beginning of the life cycle for a standardised product or throughout the life






cycle for a product that can be customised. It leads to modication exibility which is the ability of a process to make functional changes in the product. Uncertainty with respect to machine downtime makes for rerouting exibility which is the degree to which the operating sequence through which the parts ow can be changed. Uncertainty with regard to the amount of customer demand for the products offered leads to volume exibility which is dened as the ease with which changes in the aggregate amount of production of a manufacturing process can be achieved. Uncertainty as to whether the material inputs to a manufacturing process meet standards gives rise to the need for material exibility. This is the ability to handle uncontrollable variations in the composition and dimensions of the parts being processed. It also encompasses the ability to handle more than one kind of substance either for the same component or different components. Sequencing exibility is the ability to rearrange the order in which different kinds of parts are fed into the manufacturing process. It arises from the need to deal with uncertain delivery times of raw materials.

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The denition of exibility also needs to be considered from a dynamic perspective. The nature of uncertainties faced by a factory are likely to shift over time implying a need to change the salient exibility aspects. Each aspect should possess exibility responsiveness, the ability to be increased or decreased through a redesign of the manufacturing process. The approach developed here goes well beyond existing efforts in the literature which have mainly been concerned with listing types of exibility as opposed to basing them on theoretical notions such as uncertainty. At the same time it incorporates concepts which have been recognised as being signicant. For example, Mandelbaums (1978) action and state exibility correspond to the distinction between exibility responsiveness and exibility within a given design. Browne et al. (1984) have developed a list of exibility types similar to those in Table I. Operationalising manufacturing exibility No truly appropriate scales of manufacturing exibility currently exist. The workow integration scale developed by the Aston Group (Hickson, 1969) includes a subscale called workow rigidity dened as the extent to which process technology is in an invariable sequence, has limited use, and is not adaptable. It applies at the plant level and according to the domain denition in Table I is not complete.

Nature of uncertainty Demand for the kinds of products offered Length of product life cycles Appropriate product characteristics Machine downtime Amount of aggregate product demand Meeting raw material standards Timing of arrival of inputs

Flexibility type Mix Changeover Modication Rerouting Volume Material Sequencing

Table I. The domain of manufacturing exibility

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Gerwin (n.d.) used the domain denition to investigate the impact on manufacturing exibility of the latest computerised processes for body framing in two American auto assembly factories. Respondents were asked to indicate, using a ve-point scale, how much each of six of the exibility aspects had changed. Comparisons were made with conventional body framing processes that either had existed or were existing in the same plant. However, the measures, which tapped managers perceptions, could have been contaminated by perceptual biases. In order to develop more suitable exibility scales it is rst necessary to identify some alternative raw measures for each aspect of Table I. Insofar as possible they would be operationalised using objective information from records in manufacturing plants and vendor rms. Only where this proved not to be feasible would recourse be made to the perceptual evaluations of experts. We do not want to develop raw measures of the exibility aspects in terms of their economic impacts on productivity, manufacturing costs, machine quality, utilisation, etc. We would then not be able to subsequently investigate how exibility relates to these variables. Slack (1983) has suggested range, time, and cost of exibility as suitable concepts. One manufacturing process is more exible than another on a particular aspect if it can handle a wider range of possibilities. For example, one process has more volume exibility than another if it can vary its production through a greater range of values. However, the time and cost of shifting production volume also need to be considered. Two processes may adjust volume throughout the same range but the one, which accomplishes the shifts with the least time and cost is more exible. Additional raw measures can be developed for each of the exibility aspects: . Mix exibility can be measured by the number of components handled by the equipment. Chatterjee et al. (1984) offered a similar denition. Where this gure is heavily inuenced by short-term uctuations in market demand an average over a given time period can be used. However, the range of component characteristics handled is probably a more sophisticated measure of mix exibility. A manufacturing process may handle a small number of different components but they may be very different from each other. Another measure to consider is the ration of the number of components processed by the equipment to the total number processed by the factory Buzacott (1982). . One possible raw measure of changeover exibility is the number of component substitutions made over a given time period. However, a correction also needs to be made here for the degree to which the new and old components differ from each other. There may be a low frequency of changes but they may involve very dissimilar components. An alternative approach suggested by Gustavsson (1984) is to calculate the ratio of the equipment investment relevant for the next product to the total investment. . Modication exibility can be measured in terms of the number of design changes made in a component per time period. . Rerouting exibility has a long-term aspect which is salient when machines are taken out of production to accommodate major design changes. There is also a short-term aspect, which arises from the necessity to cope with machine shutdowns due to equipment or quality problems. A measure for each aspect should reect the following mutually exclusive possibilities: it is possible to

reroute component directly affected by the stoppage; rerouting is not possible but production of the other components produced by the machine or manufacturing system continues; and all production stops. Alternatively Buzacott (1982) suggested measuring rerouting exibility by the drop in production rate when a machine stoppage occurs. Volume exibility needs to be considered at the aggregate level as well as at the level of individual components. Volume changes depend upon how high capacity limits are set and how rigid are these limits. Flexibility can be measured in terms of the average volume uctuations that occur over a given time period divided by the capacity limit. Material exibility exists when there are adjustment mechanisms at one stage of a manufacturing process which identify and then correct or adapt to variations arising previously. For example, in manual systems operators can locate bent metal and either adjust it or properly position it in the machines. Otherwise, quality problems and machine breakdowns will mount. Material exibility can be measured by the extent of variations in key dimensional and metallurgical properties handled by the equipment. Sequencing exibility could be measured by the number of different sequences handled by the equipment with the lower limit being invariable sequence and the upper limit being random processing.

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The above discussion implicitly assumes that exibility is measured within the limits of a given equipment design. In order to measure exibility responsiveness it is necessary to discover how costly would be a redesign which would produce a given increase in the range of an aspect, or alternatively how much of an increase in the range would be brought about by a given investment in a redesign. The measure would be included along with the other operationalisations of each aspect in the data analysis. Flexibility responsiveness dened in terms of the impacts of hypothetical redesigns may turn out to be rather subjective and hence not very reliable. Once more, a redesign, which produces an increase in one aspect of exibility may also have consequences for other aspects. These indirect impacts would have to be considered in the measure. If it appears to be too difcult to operationalise responsiveness at this stage in our understanding an alternative is available. We could dene a new aspect called design exibility representing the ability to redesign the manufacturing process (including expanding it), and then develop measures of it based on range, time, cost and other factors. Sampling issues Having identied various raw measures of the exibility aspects we want to collect data on them. The population to be sampled should include diverse types of equipment so that the scales to be developed will have some generality. Yet it must not be so diverse that a scale is unlikely to subsume all of the equipment. Since the problem of developing exibility measures is a new one it is not easy to determine the appropriate degree of heterogeneity. The exibility aspects presumably apply to many kinds of production including metal working, assembly and even material handling. They should also be applicable to specialised machinery in steel, food products, textiles, paper, and printing, among other industries.

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Limiting the population to metal working machine tools may yield the optimal degree of diversity. The 3541 and 3542 SIC product codes identify the equipment in this category. It consists of various types of boring, drilling, gear cutting, grinding and polishing, turning, and milling machines as well as machining centres and station type machines. It also includes punching, shearing, bending, pressing, and forging equipment. Particular kinds of equipment are identied by seven digit SIC numbers. The sampling scheme should be devised to increase the chances that the items chosen will have exibility values that range widely across the measures to be developed. Stratied random sampling is, therefore, suggested but it is difcult to indicate appropriate bases for stratication. We need to identify factors, which presumably vary with exibility. Equipment could be selected in the two exhaustive categories of one of a kind and small batch production, and large batch and mass production. Flexibility should also be inuenced by the nature of a machines control system. Conventional manual and hard wired control systems will have different exibility characteristics than programmable control systems including NC, CNC, DNC and programmable controllers. The resulting random sample stratied according to average lot size (two categories) and type of control system (two categories) would be the basis for drawing a sample from the population. To the extent it is possible to collect objective data from company records, reliability will not be a critical issue. If recourse must be made to perceptions repeated measurements would be made on each manufacturing process studied. Abnormally large discrepancies could be identied and resolved through rechecking at the particular factory. Then the cleansed data would be averaged in order to conduct subsequent analysis. Future research opportunities Having collected reliable date on each raw measure it will be possible to study whether exibility is in fact a multidimensional concept. Factor analysis will identify the minimum number of signicant hypothetical concepts, which underlie the raw measures. If none are found there is no useful concept of exibility which can be discovered from the data. If just one is found, evidence will exist that exibility is a unitary concept. Alternatively, a few sub-concepts will be identied perhaps closely related to the aspects of Table I. The resulting knowledge of the basic structure of the exibility concept will suggest more appropriate raw measures and/or an improved data collection process for a future recycling of the operationalisation process. Principle components analysis can be used to construct a set of orthogonal exibility scales which best account for variations in the raw data. Each should be tested for construct validity; that is, the extent to which it relates to measures of other concepts in a manner consistent with theoretically derived hypotheses. For example, it could be argued that the degree of automation of a manufacturing process is inversely related to its exibility (Hickson, 1969; Abernathy, 1978). If the correlations turn out to be negative and substantial construct validity will be supported. Flexibility and other manufacturing criteria One of the most important functions performed by manufacturing management is to spell out in concrete terms the trade-offs among alternative manufacturing criteria (Miller, 1983; Skinner, 1984). Although exibility is increasingly important there is no

way to explicitly consider trade-offs between its various aspects and other manufacturing criteria. Consequently, it does not receive the weight it deserves in equipment choices and managers are not sure exactly how much of which kinds they possess or need. In the American auto industry, for example, new manufacturing processes such as automated body framing are being introduced to augment product quality. The resulting impact on exibility, which is also becoming more salient, is not clear. If hypotheses could be developed which relate the two criteria they could be tested using the exibility scales and quality measures. Then manufacturing managers would be able to determine how much exibility was gained or lost as quality improved. The following hypotheses, based on my knowledge of the body framing process, represent a starting point for a theory of the relationship between the two criteria. They are based on the exibility aspects of Table I, and quality in terms of the proportion of defective items and the magnitude of the defect variance. The multidimensional nature of the two variables suggests one reason it is so difcult in practice to make precise trade-off determinations. The usual ceteris paribus condition is meant to apply: . Changeover exibility and the defect variance should be inversely related. Reducing the variance depends upon incorporating rigid, automated, specialised tooling into manufacturing processes to insure tight, accurate ts among components. It, therefore, becomes more expensive and time-consuming to change over from an old product to a new one. . Modication exibility should be positively related to both aspects of quality. The more the equipment facilitates making minor design changes in a part, the easier it is to introduce quality improvements. . Volume exibility should have an inverse relationship with the proportion of acceptable pieces. The high capacity necessary for adjusting volume throughout a large range requires running equipment at high speeds which leads to more defects being produced. . Rerouting exibility and the magnitude of the defect variance should be inversely related. As rerouting opportunities increase more machines fabricate the same type of part. They have different specications and different degrees of wear which makes for a greater dispersion in meeting quality standards. . Material exibility and the proportion of acceptable pieces should be positively related. As the ability of a manufacturing process to adjust to unanticipated input variations goes up, the sources of possible defects are removed. Flexibility comparisons It is possible to distinguish between actual and potential exibility for each scale which is developed. Actual represents the amount that could be attained. Suppose data could be collected on both for each scale. When it is determined that actual is less than potential for some manufacturing process, knowledgeable individuals could be queried to provide reasons for the discrepancy. Then hypotheses could be developed and tested to see which factors are associated with the differences. This will lead to a better understanding of the variables, which limit the realisation of process potential.

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Manufacturing managers could alter those which are controllable in order to improve the effectiveness of their equipment. The discrepancy analysis would be particularly helpful in learning whether computerised manufacturing technology is being effectively utilised. Recent studies have indicated that American manufacturers are not successfully exploiting the strategic opportunities arising from the exibility of programmable automation (Skinner, 1984; Voss, 1984). The limited amount of existing knowledge suggests that the reasons are more managerial than technical in nature and, therefore, controllable. Voss (1984) pointed to managing computerised automation in overly traditional ways such as minimising changes in order to insure smooth production ows. Skinner (1978) and Gold (1980) argued that managers do not learn enough about the capabilities of the new technology. It should also be possible to make exibility comparisons between different kinds of equipment which perform the same manufacturing task. For each scale, actual and then potential exibility could be compared among the processes. The analysis would be facilitated by the development of exibility proles which graphically depict the scale values for each type of process. This kind of comparison would be especially useful for evaluating the exibility of programmable automation versus other methods of performing the same tasks. It is often seen as a means for increasing the exibility of manufacturing. For example, Goldhar and Jelinek (1983) see programmable automation allowing the manufacture of an almost unlimited variety of specic designs within a reasonable part family including alternative materials. However, as Chatterjee et al. (1984) have stated these claims are for the most part unsubstantiated. Empirical research is needed to investigate the issue. Recent research by Gerwin (n.d.) provides an example of the possibilities. He studied the changing nature of exibility in the body framing process of two American auto assembly plants. In both factories exible automation had replaced manual equipment. The new approach automatically conveys body parts, clamps them together, and performs robotic welding, under the supervision of programmable controllers. The old approach relied on workers for clamping and welding. A summary of the results is provided in Table II. The two processes are labelled BA1 and BA2 where BA stands for body assembly. Changes in exibility were indicated by the respondents on a ve point scale ranging from decreased a lot (2 2) to increased a lot ( 2): (1) Modication exibility has increased due mainly to the ability to reprogramme the robots. (2) Volume exibility has increased because of very high capacity limits. (3) Mix exibility in terms of the potential for handling a number of different kinds of car bodies has also increased, but the bodies are more similar to each other than before. (4) Rerouting and material exibility have decreased, the latter due to the reduction in human inputs. (5) The results for changeover exibility varied depending upon the rigidity of the conventional process to which comparisons were made. In one plant there was an increase and in the other a decrease.

BAl Mix exibility Number of components Range of component characteristics Component exibility Ability to accommodate major design changes 2 1 (time to accommodate major design changes)a Modication exibility Ability to acommodate minor design changes 2 1 (time to accommodate minor design changes)a Rerouting exibility Ease in short term routing Volume exibility Degree of exibility Material exibility Degree of exibility 1 21 21 21 1 0 22 0.7 21.5

BA2 2 21 2 0 2 1 21 21 22

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Notes: Values vary from a low of 2 indicating a large decrease to a high of +2 indicating a large increase; aThis characteristic has been redened so that increases (decreases) in it will correspond to increases (decreases) in the exibility aspect with which it is associated

Table II. Changes in manufacturing exibility in two auto assembly plants

This research indicates that contrary to the claims made by advocates of programmable automation it does not produce increases in exibility per se. The direction and magnitude of the change will depend upon the characteristics of the original conventional manufacturing process. When the original process consists of dedicated automation as in engine fabrication signicant increases in exibility may occur. When the previous equipment is manually operated as in auto assembly important aspects of exibility may be lost. Design issues In designing a manufacturing process attention must be paid to both its technical and social aspects. Technical considerations include the nature of the hardware (and software if applicable) as well as the hardwares layout. Social factors involve the kind of supervision, the degree of task specialisation for workers, and the amount of planning responsibilities possessed by workers. According to socio-technical systems theory Trist (1981) these two aspects are interdependent and, therefore, need to be designed simultaneously in order for a manufacturing process to be effective. A potential purchaser of a manufacturing process could develop a exibility prole depicting the amount of each type of exibility desired if operational measures existed. The prole would aid designers in determining the technical and social characteristics required by the process. It might be possible for vendors to develop general designs to meet certain widely used combinations of the exibility dimensions. They could be used as guidelines in working out detailed designs in specic cases. Table III represents an initial attempt to link exibility requirements with manufacturing process design. Each aspect of exibility is associated with design constraints on the nature of the workforce and equipment. The focus is on production and assembly lines as opposed to other types of manufacturing processes.

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Flexibility type Mix Changeover Modication Rerouting Volume Material Sequencing

Workforce characteristics Varied skills in working with different products Ability to learn new operating skills Ability to quickly modify operating procedures Group structure Varied skills external to the line Varied skills in maintenance and defect detection and correction; group structure; group strcture Varied operational skills within the line; foreman controls line balancing

Equipment characteristics Low degree of specialization Little hard automation Few rexturing problems Redundancy High, adjustable capacity limits Adjustment and correction mechanisms Fast set-ups

Table III. Manufacturing process design for exibility

In general the critical workforce characteristic is multi-skilling but its nature varies depending upon the type of exibility. The nature of equipment characteristics varies considerably: . Mix exibility requires a low degree of specialisation for workers and equipment. . Changeover exibility demands that workers are able to learn new skills as the product mix changes and that hard automation is kept to a minimum. . Modication exibility, which allows redesigned parts, is associated with a workforce quickly able to modify operating procedures, and with equipment that facilitates rexturing. . Rerouting exibility requires a group structure to foster cooperation when breakdowns occur, and to avoid redundancy in equipment functions so that one machine can take the place of another which is down. . Volume exibility demands that workers have skills that can be utilised elsewhere in the factory when volume is reduced, and that the equipment have high and/or adjustable capacity limits when volume is increased. . Material exibility is associated with workers and equipment being able to adjust to or correct unexpected variations in inputs. . Sequencing exibility requires that workers have varied skills so that the line can be readily rebalanced, and that line balancing responsibility be decentralised to foremen Schonberger (1982). My research Gerwin (n.d.) in auto assembly plants suggests one way in which the design framework in Table III can be improved. It was found that understanding the exibility of a computerised manufacturing system requires an investigation of its subsystems exibility. The automated body framing systems studied involved control, material handling, xturing and welding subsystems. The degree of changeover exibility inherent in the xturing mechanisms is much less than that for the robots, and the formers rigidity impedes the latters exibility from being fully realised. It appears that a computerised manufacturing process is only as exible as its most rigid subsystem permits. Manufacturing managers need to be aware of this design principle while designers need to properly balance rigid and progammable constituents to yield desired overall exibility levels.

Concluding remarks Is it possible to put the study of manufacturing exibility on a more scientic basis? This paper offers a qualied yes in response to the question. It has indicated how operational measures of the concept could be developed, and suggests some uses to which the measures could be put. A number of subjective elements remain but at least they have been identied. These include choice of the conceptual level to study, identication of the concepts domain, and determination of an appropriate population from which to collect sample data. The choice of conceptual level is perhaps the most signicant issue with which to deal. If meaningful results can be obtained at the manufacturing process level then the approach advocated here should be extended to the level of the entire factory to obtain a more comprehensive view. With operational measures at the plant level it would be possible to investigate the differences in exibility exhibited by high performing and low performing units in the same industry. Research could also be conducted into the sources of plant-wide exibility. The nature of manufacturing processes is only one alternative. Organisational structure, purchasing policies, production planning procedures, product design, and manufacturing strategy may also be important. It should also be possible to compare the nature of exibility in Japanese and American factories manufacturing the same products. This would give greater insight into the nature of the Japanese production system particularly with regard to which kinds of uncertainties are controlled, which are adapted to, and the strategies used for controlling and adapting. Ultimately, this could lead to a more comprehensive analysis of the exible factory which attempts to adapt to uncertainty versus the proactive factory which attempts to control it.
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