Advanced manufacturer builds agility in production

The manufacturing industry is undergoing rapid disruption, and as we saw from the closure of Dick Smith in 2016, the consequences of sitting still while the world around you changes can be disastrous.

 How can manufacturers prepare for unpredictable market forces and changing consumer demand? Agile Manufacturing is providing some answers.

In an industry-leading design, advanced manufacturer SAGE Automation has optimised its manufacturing layout to address its unique challenge; the majority of its manufacturing orders are unique to a project.

The new design is part of the company’s move towards agility, that is, being able to react quickly and effectively to customer demands.

In short: the facility’s layout must be flexible to respond to changing orders.

“While we also do manufacturing for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), which have ‘standard products’, most of our production changes day to day, week to week,” SAGE General Manager of Operations Paul Johnson said.

“Our production schedule might be a batch of 20 roadside cubicles for a major freeway intelligent traffic system upgrade, followed by 100 consoles and 50 enclosures for an integrated platform management system (IPMS) for a submarine the next week,” he said.

Agility built into design

Flexibility is central to the design, and half of the shopfloor has been laid out with reconfigurable ‘assembly cells’.

Each cell has its own: mobile workbench/s, cable storage, electrical outlets, and a set of tools and equipment.

Here, every employee has what they need on-hand to minimise wasted movement, such as walking across the room for a tool.

The cells (4x4m and 16m2 at their smallest) can then be connected to make larger cells (up to 81m2) depending on production needs.

“The assembly area can literally be set up for a 10 metre-long motor control centre fit out, commonly built for the water industry,” Mr Johnson said.

“An hour later it can be ready to produce 30 stainless steel distributed I/O junction boxes for a food and beverage application.”


Key features of the optimised layout include:

  • Floor and warehouse space optimised: flexible ‘assembly cells’ and automated vertical storage for fast turnover of materials
  • Designated work areas for machining: this minimises staff movement and maximises space
  • Designated areas for material preparation: electrical cables automatically cut to size, panel cut out and back plate drilling and tapping before being sent to assembly cells
  • Designated specialised areas: for OEM and Low Voltage Switchboard manufacture and testing
  • Manual handling improved: new design of copper storage unit to minimise manual handling accessing copper

The design was achieved with no additional capital expenditure, using only what was already available – a great take-home message for other manufacturers wanting to improve production through layout.

Completed in September 2017, the new facility is expected to increase capacity, quality and reduce production costs by up to 30 per cent.

What is agile manufacturing and why should your company consider it?

Agile manufacturing is defined as “the capability to survive and prosper in conditions of unpredictable change by reacting quickly and effectively to changing markets”.

There are two key reasons you should be thinking about Agile Manufacturing:

  1. Technology

Technology, products and consumer experience have never been more interdependent.

Competition is moving from all angles and at lightning speed. For example, technological advancements in industrial automation, product traceability, and recipe management impacts how consumers order and pay, and how products are designed and manufactured.

The automotive industry has seen advancements in alternative propulsion technology, 3D printing and self-driving technologies that have forced car manufacturers to transform their product and production methods. Operational agility is now central to achieving a competitive edge.

  1. Market volatility

Fluctuating product demand, labor costs, supply chain and broader market events like the 2008 financial crisis have the ability to render companies bankrupt.

While preparation for such events extends beyond the plant floor, production must be able to respond when the business demands it.

What does Agile Manufacturing look like in practice?

Agile Manufacturing focuses on an organisation’s ability to react (suitably) to customer and market demand. Such readiness involves:

  • Connecting customer service, marketers, designers and production teams – to enable instant improvements to product/s and development of new products based on feedback.
  • Information and communication infrastructure that facilitates such close collaboration. This includes the integration of IT and operations systems for greater data visibility and actionable insights.
  • Flexibility built into the line and product/s – which could include volume-flexible production assets, modular production design or ensuring lines are capable of product variations that may not be designed yet.  This reduces startup time for product variations.
  • Flexibility in production layout and process – for example SAGE’s reconfigurable ‘assembly cells’ that allow for fast changeover of different products.
  • Postponing parts of production – such as producing a ‘base product’ in advance, then leaving final assembly/configuration/customisation for later, depending on the customer’s preferences.
  • Developing a highly trained workforce and following industry trends – skilled people are key to being able to execute change well.
  • A just-in-time production model is common – removes inventory, frees up space for production and makes low-volume customisation possible.

Moving towards agility

No matter what type of product or production process you work in, there will always be room to start a conversation around Agile Manufacturing. It all starts with a change in thinking.

Small steps to prepare for future unknowns will ensure the business, and your team, is able to respond quickly and sustain a competitive advantage.


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