As a manufacturing engineering consultant I’m often asked where the manufacturing industry is headed. Well, I don’t have a crystal ball for predictions, but if you examine history and can see the trends and the reasons for these industry changes; it may give you a better feel for answering this question of where manufacturing is headed. As a popular publication, The Racing Form, states: “A horse’s future lies in its past.” So let’s go back in time.

The manufacturing industry, over time, has made some dramatic changes.

Craftsmen –

In its infancy manufacturing was primarily a traditional job shop. Think of a blacksmith producing a gun. Not only was he asked to meet specific requirements, but he alone was responsible for the wood work, metal work and finishing. He built a relationship with the customer, maybe fine tuning the product a number of times before the customer was satisfied. Some customers may have wanted accuracy, some wanted the gun to look good, some customers may have wanted a lightweight gun, and some may have wanted all three requirements. This craftsman would need to adjust his skills to meet these demands and consequently how long it may take to produce the gun would vary based on these and other factors.

There was an issue however, with this approach. If a part on the gun may have broken, the gun would have to be taken out of use, returned to the craftsman, a replacement part would need to be fabricated, the part assembled into the gun and fine-tuned again. This was a time consuming and non-repeatable task.

Manufacturing went this way for a long time until around the Civil War, when this broken-part issue was found to be affecting the soldiers and the war. Discovering this, the Union requested that component parts start being made the same. Leading to…

Mass Production –

During the rise of the industrial revolution and the invention of the automobile, Henry Ford took this idea of sameness of design and developed a new way to manufacture; the assembly line. His reasoning for this change in manufacturing was to decrease the cost of the product so that everyone who was working within his factory could afford to own an automobile. Genius! He not only provided work for folks and decreased the time to manufacture; he expanded the market for his product by making it affordable.

So what was the matter with this approach? Remember the famous phrase “You can have it in any color, as long as it is black”? This same product and the focus on reducing cost; lead to poor quality, no choice, worker dis-satisfaction with the working conditions and distrust of management, and product improvements took too long to implement. Leading to…

Flexible Manufacturing –

The days of multiple customers ordering the same thing from a manufacturer are dwindling. Today, we can customize just about anything we want from bath towels to sneakers to cars. This idea of giving the customer what he wants, when he wants it, at a reasonable cost; is not going away, in fact it is expanding; it is all around us. Today we live in a microwave society where waiting is out of the question and having it my way is demanded. Those manufacturers who can see this, adjust their operations to readily handle these requests and satisfy their customers, are the ones who will continue to be successful. The manufacturers who give me quizzical looks and responses of “well, this is how we always did it” to recommendations for improvement, sorry to say, may be going the way of the craftsmen and mass production.

Manufacturers need to step back, look at how they are producing their product and ask themselves which path do I want to go down? It’s your choice, Insyte is here to help.

Jim Johnson, Consultant at Insyte, has more than 30 years of diverse manufacturing experience in engineering, project management, new product development and continuous improvement. Prior to joining Insyte, Jim held a variety of engineering positions at Greatbatch, Fisher-Price and General Motors. He is an active senior member of the Institute of Industrial Engineers. Jim is certified as a Professional Business Advisor through MEP University, is an ISO provisional lead auditor, and a trainer in lean manufacturing initiatives. He is on the Board of Advisors of RIT’s Industrial and Systems Engineering Department. Jim holds an MS in Industrial Engineering from the University at Buffalo and a BS in Industrial Engineering from RIT.






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