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Agile Manufacturing: An Industry Expert Speaks to the Local Engineering Community

Posted January 28, 2009 9:33 AM by april05

Thursday evening's gathering of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Hudson-Mohawk section, was held in Albany, NY, and featured respected researcher Dr. Mohamed Gadalla. Dr. Gadalla, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering at Central Connecticut State University, is an expert in a variant of lean manufacturing concerned with non-controllable production environments, known as "agile" manufacturing.

Lewis Stitt, mechanical engineer from the Watervliet Arsenal and ASME Hudson-Mohawk member, organized this event. Dr. Gadalla's theme stressed that agile manufacturing techniques need to be embraced by U.S. companies in order to remain globally competitive during the current economic downturn.

Companies I reference in this blog article are striving for "agile" status, but are good ones to keep an eye on as blazing the path forward. My focus was traditional production companies, but agile principles are applicable to software manufacturers as well. Resources at the bottom of this blog article are good references for further reading.


<-- Caterpillar's early Holt 45, used to construct the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1909. With projects like this, Caterpillar went on to build a global reputation of quality for itself and "Brand-America". Photos courtesy Wikipedia.

During this time, working to bring agriculture – grapes - to the desert, his father used U.S.-made Caterpillar earth-moving products to do much of the work. Later, when the political winds shifted and Egypt replaced Caterpillar with Russian-made equivalents, frequent break-downs and resulting project delays instilled a strong sense of respect and admiration for the quality of American-made products in both Gadalla's father and himself.

Motivated in part from his early memory, Dr. Gadalla told his audience that he has committed himself to helping American manufacturing companies remain competitive in today's turbulent global economy.


After his icebreaker, Dr. Gadalla began his presentation with PowerPoint video clips, commenting on the current state of the global economy. The first, an interview from PBS's Newshour program, made the point that many of the top leaders in both academia and government did not foresee the coming global economic crisis.

The second video clip, from CNN, featured a young, 20-something garment production worker, working with low-technology, labor-intensive, 20+ year-old fabrication equipment, in an industrial Chinese city. For this woman, a job paying $200 per week had been a life-changing event, attracting both her and her husband from the countryside to the city. They live dormitory-style at the same facility where they both work, and she sees their son twice a year - her extended family cares for him. Nevertheless, she perceives her job as an immense opportunity for her family.

How this woman's family, and millions of others like hers working at similar factories across China, will fare during the current economic crisis, and how workers and companies in the U.S. can compete with such low-overhead labor and manufacturing techniques, is the point Dr. Gadalla seemed to be highlighting.

For U.S. firms to compete in this environment, Dr. Gadalla stressed the need to pursue manufacturing that is highly customized and adaptable, using state-of-the-art, "hybridized" manufacturing equipment and techniques, and workers who are trained and cross-trained thoroughly, both for today's work and for anticipated work many months out. To get there, he suggests using agile production methods as a tool.


After wrapping up his videos and commenting, Dr. Gadalla began the technical part of his presentation. He made the point that "agile" manufacturing was distinct from "lean" manufacturing, in that lean manufacturing assumes a predictable product demand for a producer's products. To handle an unstable demand – like that produced for many companies during the current economic downturn – producers need to take an "excellence (survival) trip" with their production methods. Cincinnati Milacron was a company cited by Dr. Gadalla that had suffered as a result of having a non-agile strategy, in going head-to-head with tough Japanese competition.


There are three components to agile. Which one a company should adopt, and how experts in the field of "agile" feel about each, depends on the details of the manufacturer and the specific agile-expert one speaks to. All three, FMS, RMS, and MIS, were discussed by Dr. Gadalla on Thursday.

FMS, "Flexible Manufacturing System" (concept dates to the 1980's) is a strategy where producers increase system efficiency through development and enhancement of anticipatory hardware, software, and automation tools. FMS was developed in response to the need for mass customization and allows for more responsiveness to product changes. The central ideas of competence, flexibility, virtual enterprise, knowledge-driven enterprise, and the ability to re-configure as requirements demand are central to FMS.

RMS, "Reconfigurable Manufacturing System" (concept dates to approximately 1996), is a strategy where producers increase system efficiency through changes in production machinery design, changes in production steps, and by using adaptable production machinery. This includes cross-training of production workforce and "mobile manufacturing" - literally putting wheels/casters onto statically-located machinery and requiring machine integrators to design machine accuracy/quality with the mobile assumption. According to Dr. Gadalla, an industrial innovation center at the University of Ann Arbor, Michigan, introduced this concept, although RMS is not Dr. Gadalla's most-favored agile method.

A RMS machine design change exemplifying the "hybridizing principle" – morphing formerly separate production machinery actions into a single, multi-function and automated production machine (minimizing set-up time) – was shown to the ASME section. It was an automatic metal-bending machine from E.P.M.P., Ltd. company in Sequin, Texas – a company Dr. Gadalla personally worked with.

The combined machine simplified production in that it required production staff only to load it with the raw material piece, and no more. Previously, the sheet metal work-piece had gone through several, discrete production machinery stages – and locations on the shop floor - requiring multiple interventions by production staff.

MIS, "Manufacturing Information System" (most recent concept) is Dr. Gadalla's most-favored strategy and is more efficient than RMS. He has written two research papers on this topic but has received resistance from the U.S. manufacturing community for this approach. MIS theory is still a "work-in-progress", and I suggest interested members of the CR4 community to continue to follow Dr. Gadalla's work for updates as it evolves.

MIS suggests that producers cross-train their production staff - both for today's work and for anticipated work months or years out, hybridize their tooling, and increase sharing of their production information systems – both software and proprietary databases - with their business partners, to minimize downtime in workflow process. Instead of requiring the manual re-configuration of the RMS approach, MIS offers automatic adaptation to changed circumstances.

As with RMS, "hybridizing" machinery – having more than one process per machining center - is also an important component to MIS. The example cited by Dr. Galldalla was creating a lathe and milling combination machine from formerly separate machining centers. This allows for increased efficiency per machining location. A multi-spindle/multi-drilling machining head, as part of an integrated machining system (E.P.M.P company example), is another example of a hybridizing approach to increasing machine center efficiency.

Dr. Gadalla mentioned an upcoming trip to Germany, to witness first-hand a company there, Modine-Wackersdorf GmbH, that has implemented the MIS approach to agile manufacturing – specifically, a variant known as the "mobile principle" – and offered to share more about this to engineers in attendance that spoke to him after the Albany meeting.

- Larry


1. "Changeable Manufacturing – Classification, Design and Operation" - paid access to this document via (Elsevier):

2. "A Proposed Roadmap from the Current to Agile Manufacturing" – copyrighted document presented at 2008 ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition

3. A. Gunasekaran and Y. Y. Yusuf (U.K.) - agile mechanical slide project – "Agile Manufacturing: The Drivers, Concepts and Attributes"


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Re: Agile Manufacturing: An Industry Expert Speaks to the Local Engineering Community

02/04/2009 9:21 AM

make a note. agile manufacturing.

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