A flexible factory, also referred to as a flexible manufacturing system (FMS), is a manufacturing setup designed to easily adapt to changes in the type and quantity of the product being manufactured. It uses high-speed, automated machines and equipment controlled by advanced computer systems to perform various tasks.
In a flexible factory, machinery can be quickly reconfigured to produce different products or adjust production volume as needed. This type of setup can handle a mix of products simultaneously and allows for customization.
A flexible factory is designed with the following features:
- Versatile machinery: Machines are designed or programmed to perform a wide range of tasks and can be easily switched from producing one item to another.
- Automated material handling: Materials are moved throughout the factory using automated systems like conveyors and robotic arms.
- Advanced control systems: Computer systems are used to schedule tasks, control the machines and equipment, and manage the overall production process.
- Modular design: Equipment and workstations are arranged in a modular way, which makes it easier to reconfigure the factory setup as needed.
The main advantage of a flexible factory is its ability to adapt to changing market demands without significant downtime or cost for reconfiguration. It’s particularly beneficial in industries where there is a high level of product variety and frequent changes in product design or volume.
However, flexible factories require a significant investment in advanced machinery and control systems, and they may require skilled workers to operate and maintain the equipment. Despite these challenges, a flexible factory can lead to greater efficiency, lower production costs, and improved customer satisfaction.
Example of a Flexible Factory
Let’s take an example of an automotive manufacturing plant. These factories often use flexible manufacturing systems to meet changing consumer demand for different models and types of vehicles.
In a flexible automotive factory:
- Versatile machinery: The factory has robotic machinery that can perform a variety of tasks, from welding to painting. These robots can be reprogrammed as needed to assemble different models of cars. For instance, one day they might assemble a compact car, and the next day, they might be reprogrammed to assemble an SUV.
- Automated material handling: The factory might use automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to transport car parts from one workstation to another. This reduces the need for manual labor and allows for efficient movement of materials.
- Advanced control systems: The entire production process is controlled by sophisticated computer systems. These systems schedule tasks, manage inventory, and ensure quality control. They can adjust the production schedule based on changes in demand, machine breakdowns, or other factors.
- Modular design: The assembly line is designed so that it can be easily reconfigured as needed. For example, if a new model of car is being introduced, the factory layout can be adjusted without major disruptions.
This flexible factory can adjust to the changing needs of the market, whether that’s a shift in consumer preferences towards electric vehicles or a sudden increase in demand for a particular model. This flexibility allows the company to respond quickly to market changes, keep production costs down, and meet customer needs more effectively.