Agility began with Lean Manufacturing and from there permeated every aspect of the business only to come full circle with the ultimate manufacturing technology: Additive Manufacturing. Here is a closer look at the term agility, where it began, how it’s practiced in various disciplines, especially in manufacturing and the transformation from the industrial age to the knowledge – also known as industry 4.0.
The History of Lean
Lean Manufacturing started in the early 90’s based on the manufacturing philosophy implemented in Toyota Japan. The Philosophy called TPS (Toyota Production System) was developed by the company owner Sakichi Toyoda, his son, Kiichiro Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno a production engineer. The basis of the approach is minimizing waste, creating a smooth workflow process, which enables an increase in output as well as quality improvement.
Lean Manufacturing enabled Toyota to enter the American market, leading to the company being recognized as a leader in the auto manufacturing industry, then and today. Its success can be traced back to the 1970’s when the company introduced their cars to the American market, providing better cars at a cheaper price compared to the American cars. This led researchers at MIT to conduct a major study comparing Toyota to other car manufacturers, concluding that Toyota required half the man-hours to build a car than other manufacturers. The study was published in the book The Machine That Changed the World where the term Lean Manufacturing was first coined describing Toyota’s manufacturing model.
From Lean to Agile
The principles of Lean Manufacturing are rooted in waste (“muda” in Japanese) reduction yet there are many ways to achieve that beyond using fewer materials. For example, Toyota recognized that keeping inventory is a waste of resources – materials, logistics, time and manpower. Therefore the company implemented Just-in-Time (JiT) manufacturing. By anticipating what and when parts are needed in the production line the company can manufacture parts just in time cutting inventory costs while maintaining a smooth workflow (also called the Pull Production method). This is just one of the principles of Lean Manufacturing that lend themselves to Agile Manufacturing. Lean Manufacturing and Agile Manufacturing are both systematic ways of thinking when each part in the system is continuously improved for better quality and efficiency, the sum of parts improve as well, generating a highly functional system. The same goes for the people working within the system, both models emphasize teamwork, the necessity for motivated thinkers for a smooth process but also for problem-solving on the go.
The next discipline to go agile was development and especially software development. The idea of short development cycles, MVP (minimal viable product), and many iterations that include feedback from the intended user fit very well in software development at the end of the last century. This approach was put to paper in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, the 4 core values of the manifesto are:
• Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools
For example, letting users try the software before it’s completed helps recognize faults in the early stages. The Agile process prefers interaction and feedback from actual users over those who write the code throughout the development process.
• Working Software over comprehensive documentation
The objective can be divided into smaller steps or minimal viable products (MVP). Products that have just enough features to satisfy early customers provide a platform for feedback which is implemented back into the process in future product development.
• Customer Collaboration over contract negotiation
People are key. Establishing a relationship and understanding with the customer will allow for a faster more efficient process.
• Responding to Change over following a plan
Things change constantly and in order to stay relevant and provide the most up to date product the process must be flexible, ready to change direction if and when needed.
As software project managers embraced agile, other project managers were exposed to it as well and saw its benefits. In any project management, today change in minimal time is crucial, bringing a product to market as fast as possible without compromising on quality is a major goal. Agility fits perfectly into that. In agile businesses, speedy prototype iterations using 3D printing provides quick gratification and optimal results early on in the process.
Agility answers many needs in current marketing as well. Today, in the age of social media there is no room for one big thought-in-advance campaign. Marketing on social media is all about providing changing content and multiple mini-campaigns through the various forms of media. It’s a series of attempts, some more successful than others, where the bottom line is reacting to the customer in real-time, adapting and innovating constantly.
The additive manufacturing ecosystem needs to be agile as it is constantly changing and advancing but more than that, AM enables all kinds of agile benefits. First and foremost it is an agile manufacturing method in its essence, it allows the utmost flexibility as each print can be unique and batch sizes can vary and be as low as 1. Secondly, when it comes to agility in responding to the customer, AM is ideal, the technology allows for customization, providing each customer with the right precise product (below ThyssenKrupp TechCenter additively manufactures customized products tailored to customers). It also enables short meaningful cycles in adjusting the product and adapting it to the changing needs and demands of the market. As a tool in the manufacturing process additively manufacturing jigs and fixtures helps maintain a smoother workflow, minimizing downtime. And then there is on-demand (lean) manufacturing – producing only what is needed, where and when it’s needed (up top image courtesy of SAP’s distributed manufacturing platform). All of these agile capabilities provided by AM are at the core of new manufacturing and industry 4.0.