HOW can you make hamburgers and ice cream on the same production line?
Simply put wheels on key parts of the line, and when the boss says "switch," you just quickly reconfigure it.
Dedicated production lines, which make just one thing ad infinitum, are in fact becoming old-fashioned, says Steven Goldman, chief operating officer of the Agility Forum at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., a think tank on modern manufacturing.
The model of mass production, on which the US has so long relied, is now challenged at almost every turn.
We live in a competitive world of niche markets and rapidly changing tastes, so we need a different manufacturing model, Professor Goldman and other experts say.
The current catchword: agility. This topic attracted several hundred representatives of manufacturing firms to a recent national conference in Boston sponsored by Lehigh's five-year-old Agility Forum. Speakers noted that today, manufacturing is the art of agility - the will, knowledge, and skill to continually reconfigure and integrate the processes of making things.
Manufacturing has already gone through the "lean" movement, which removed layers of steps and waste, invested in technology, utilized teams, and aimed to develop products in months.
The "agile" movement now stresses diversity of products and methods, quickly reconfigurable equipment and teams, multi-skilled workers, spending money on people and integrated information systems, partnering with other firms, and development of products in just weeks, says Curt Ward, a Lehigh professor.
The ice cream-hamburger model of agility evolved at the Friendly Ice Cream Corp. of Wilbraham, Mass., to respond to quick changes in demand.
The agility model will also help usher in mass customization in retailing, experts say. For example, marketing pros can target niche markets; computers can zip off individual measurements - for items such as jeans, dresses, and shoes - to the factory; and flexible manufacturing can produce goods almost as individual as grandma used to make.
Such goods will cost more, but many consumers will be willing to pay for the advantages, experts say.
Boeing Company and Chrysler Corp. have done a lot with agility, Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corp. are getting into it too, the experts say.
Small companies can often benefit the most from today's changing markets, agility gurus say. Small firms that survive are by nature quick and agile.
Some American universities have long been partners in developing industrial and manufacturing processes, and several are now active in the agility movement, including Lehigh, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., the University of Illinois, and the University of Texas.
The US government, since the later years of the Bush presidency, has helped fund the agility movement, partly because of the strains of defense conversion, and partly to make America more competitive. Funds have been channeled through the National Science Foundation and the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the Defense Department. The Clinton administration upgraded and intensified such support.
Separately, "some 30 states sponsor centers teaching partnership in manufacturing to help small suppliers get aboard modern manufacturing," says Aris Melissaratos, a vice president at Westinghouse Electric Corp.
Among the companies that have adopted the agility approach are PACCAR Inc., of Bellevue, Wash. Its subsidiary, Kenworth Truck Company, opened a new truck-building facility in June of 1993 in Renton, Wash., incorporating all the efficiency and agility features they could identify in a national study.
And Mack Trucks Inc., in Allentown, Pa., has embraced agility as well. "Customers used to wait 14 months for some trucks, but we now have many of the orders filled in 60 days," says chief operating officer Donn Viola. "Trucks are customized work tools, and we are working on agility in making them."
How customized can a diesel truck be? You'd be surprised, Mr. Viola says. Order a truck from Mack Trucks and the company will offer to drive the route your truck will run and, utilizing an array of sensors, will record data used to customize your truck - such as type of engine and its variable electronic settings, transmission, and tires.
You can also choose from 4,500 color combinations. On one model alone, there are 54 different wheel bases available. The same model can be fitted with 12 different engines - each guaranteed for 500,000 miles - that can be factory-set in dozens of ways for different road conditions.