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Role of machine flexibility in lean manufacturing.


The advent of liberalization, privatization and globalization has brought forth profound economic, social, environmental and technological pressures on the organizations. Markets have become more open, competitive and the customers more demanding. Competition is fierce in all aspects of business such as technology, cost, product quality and service. Traditionally an organization is seen as a collection of departments or activities, each managed separately with their own inventories or time buffers between them, while performance is improved by setting targets and budgets. When the targets are not met the management finds an easy way out, which is a structural change in the organization, which does not address the real issues such as the underlying processes and cost structures that remain more or less unchanged.

There is a need to identify the individual processes and the flow of the organization as a whole. This exposes the management and employees to more opportunities to improve the process. The distinctive thing about lean thinking is that it derives from observing the best practices in an organization. Lean Manufacturing is to assist any types of organization with a desire to improve the company's operations and become more competitive by focusing on cost reduction that eliminates non-value added activities. Cost cutting through process improvement has assumed a great importance in all kinds of manufacturing organizations. Minimizing wastage of resources and moving towards implementation of lean manufacturing have become key strategies to achieve cost cutting. Successful implementation of lean manufacturing requires sophisticated flexible numerically controlled machines, use of latest technology systems and procedures of work, standardization, multi skilled flexible work force and so on.

In the present dynamic business nature, leanness has undergone and still going a process of continuous and never ending evolution [1]. Since the introduction of the Toyota Production System, the lean concept has spread all over the world. The principle of lean manufacturing, of which process improvement is an important element was brought to the attention of the West by the publication of "The Machine that Changed the World" by Womack et al. [2]. This was followed by "Lean Thinking" [3], which was more practitioner focused. In addition, there have been many Japanese inspired books which focused on company's specific production systems [2,3,4,5]. On the other hand Bateman [6] relates process improvement with sustainability by identifying enablers associated with activities. Process improvement activities are a crucial tool for companies undergoing lean transformation and removing waste from their processes.

Literature Review

Nagarur and Azeem [7] observe the effect of component commonality and machine flexibility in a manufacturing system and found that the make span decreases, whereas machine utilization and factor productivity increase by the introduction of commonality to the existing system. Competitive priorities and machine flexibility have affirmed the role of flexible technologies in supporting competitiveness in the marketplace [8,9,10,11]. Flexible automation may blur the distinctions between cost, quality, delivery, and flexibility through the synergistic impact of increased productivity, speed, and variety when it is properly implemented [12]. Mohamed [13] found that limited tool magazines, associated with lower machine flexibility, increased make span, thereby affecting time and cost. Burcher et al. [14] observed that advanced manufacturing technologies (AMT) resulted in lower labor and inventory costs, lower lead time with increased throughput, better quality, and more flexibility as small batch production became more economical. In a series of simulated experiments, Boyer and Leong [15] determined that a high degree of machine flexibility is essential for maximizing the value of process flexibility.

Peter Hines et. al. [16], comments on approaches that have sought to address some of the earlier gaps in lean thinking. They provide a framework for understanding the evolution of lean not only as a concept, but also its implementation within an organization. They too found that the distinction of lean thinking at the strategic level and lean production at the operational level is crucial to understanding lean as a whole in order to apply the right tools and strategies to provide customer value.

Systematically implementing improvement actions based on customer expectation and strategic decisions through business processes, and prioritizing improvement actions will definitely contribute to strategic objective of process management [17]. Workers initiatives and combined with their enablers directly link down the strategy of those activities at the operating level of the business which contribute most to manufacturing excellence [18].

Lean Manufacturing

To understand the impact of machines on lean manufacturing, we need to gain a good understanding of the term--Lean Manufacturing. Lean manufacturing is a management philosophy focusing on reduction of the seven manufacturing related wastes as defined originally by Toyota. The wastes are:

* Overproduction (production ahead of demand)

* Transportation (moving products that are not actually required to perform the processing)

* Waiting (waiting for the next production step)

* Inventory (all components, work-in-progress and finished product not being processed)

* Motion (people or equipment moving or walking more than is required to perform the processing)

* Over Processing (due to poor tool or product design creating activity)

* Defects (the effort involved in inspecting for and fixing defects)

LM is the systematically implementing improvement actions by eliminating wastes based on customer expectation and strategic decisions through business processes. The main focus of LM is to reduce cost by eliminating non-value added activities; labeled as waste in every organization which either produce products or provide services. The flexible machines are another important factor that derives the system successfully. Although a number of authors have discussed the issues outlined above but they fail to provide a structured LM system that can guide about the role of MF when implementing the lean manufacturing. Moreover, despite literature suggesting 'what' and 'why' an organization needs and have practice for process improvement, it fails to state 'how' it should improve process. The objective of the LM system is to apply carefully the organization's limited resources, including capital and hard assets as well as time and process assets.

Lean Production Principles

Soriano-Meier and Forrester [19] suggested nine lean production principles for the assessment of degree of leanness in manufacturing firms are as follows:

1. Elimination of waste

2. Continuous improvement

3. Zero defects

4. Just in time deliveries

5. Pull of raw materials

6. Multifunctional teams

7. Decentralization

8. Integration of functions

9. Vertical information systems

Importance of Machine Flexibility in LM

In today's competitive world, no company can afford to wastage of resources. The most of the manufacturing companies are still not able to utilize hundred percent of its resources. The most expensive and fast obsolescing asset of any organization is its machinery. In fact, machines are one of the few important assets an organization has. The companies that leverage the higher utilization of machines will achieve better performance than those that do not. The companies that fail to utilize the machines at a higher rate have more waste. The main focus of LM is to reduce cost by eliminating non-value added activities; labeled as waste in every organization which either produce products or provide services.

Flexible machines are used to establish methods and improvement in utilization factor to eliminate opportunities for waste. The objective of the LM system is to identify and eliminate wastages by removing non value added activities. Flexible manufacturing processes provide the capability for rapid improvement and adoption to change in product and process. Figure 1 clearly illustrates the difference of a traditional manufacturing and flexible lean manufacturing process. Flexible lean manufacturing generates less waste and having shorter cycle time in comparison of traditional manufacturing. This is possible only when we are having the lean flexible manufacturing process.


It is hard to deny that most of the manufacturing companies that are focusing on company strategy for cost reduction through eliminating wastages are remain to sustain in this competitive world. LM definitely becomes their arms to fight to achieve this goal. So the flexible lean machines has become the drivers to enable the LM as a tool to achieve excellence in work processes through deliver consistent quality products with lowest cost of operation which is the expected results of the lean process as explain in figure 2. In case of lean manufacturing quality of product is also improved due to standard predefined processes in comparison to undefined traditional manufacturing methods. Here, again, we must accept the fact that change is inevitable and that the speed with which the necessary modification are made is the deciding factor in our survival.


Research Methodology

In today's highly competitive market survival of a manufacturing organization depends upon its ability to introduce new and improved products while containing their prices within competitive range. It is hard to deny that most of the manufacturing companies that are focusing on company strategy for cost reduction through eliminating wastages are remain to sustain in this competitive world. LM definitely becomes their arms to fight to achieve this goal. Flexible lean machines with high utilization factor and less work in process (WIP) helps to implement LM. In traditional mass manufacturing, special purpose dedicated machines were managed. The objective was to produce more, and for a long period due to monopoly of manufactures and long product life cycle. Today, the product life cycles are shortening due to globalization and technology is obsolete at a faster rate. So, flexible machines are more useful in rapidly product changing environment. The firms where the machine flexibility is higher are generating less amount of waste of resources. Methodology involves a survey of Indian manufacturing firms by taking response in a specially designed questionnaire and conducting personal interviews with the concerned managers, engineers and officials. For this, various parameters contributing towards machine flexibility and degree of leanness suggested by Soriano-Meier and Forrester [19] are identified and framed in a specially designed questionnaire to know the response of the manufacturing firms to these parameters. The focus of study was on identifying the role of machine flexibility in LM in northern India.

Data Collection

In survey 32 firms were randomly selected to assess the resource utilization and machine flexibility out of which only 20 firms responded. Twenty two questions were designed to know the status of human flexibility and nine for degree of leanness (DOL). Seven point Likert-type scales were used for the machine flexibility and DOL items. The scale ranged from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agrees" with a middle anchor point of "neither agree nor disagree". The questionnaire was structured in two parts. First part was specially designed to measure the variables related to the assessment of MF and second part was specially designed to evaluate the adoption of lean production principles for assessment of level of LM. A comparison graph from the survey results to show the trends of MF and LM in various firms of survey is shown in figure 3.



It is clear from the above survey that MF plays an important role in the implementation of LM in a manufacturing firm. The curves of MF and LM of various firms in figure 3 show a similar trend and reflect a relationship. The firms which are having less MF are also having less DOL implementation.

So the lean flexible process plays an important role for sustaining and higher utilization of resources in practicing lean concept. Skill and Knowledge of employees will also support them in practicing lean concept effectively and efficiently by utilizing the lean tool and techniques. Figure 4 clearly illustrates the role of MF in LM. How lean flexible processes are the main drivers to achieve the word class manufacturing through lean process management is illustrated as lean flexible model towards achieving world class manufacturing in figure 4.


The model reveals that there is a very strong relationship between MF and LM. The firms where the MF is higher are generating less amount of waste of resources and are closer to successful implementation of LM. It is also brought out that a successful lean manufacturing implementation program should address the machine aspect first of all.


Machines are the most important, expensive and fast obsolescing element of an organization. Flexible machines are the main drivers to achieve the desired results through higher utilization. So, MF plays a very vital role in implementing the LM. However, the above study suggests that flexible machines can be used to support multiple priorities unless there is a predominant emphasis on cost. The study concludes that there is a very strong relationship between machine flexibility and lean manufacturing. The firms where the machine flexibility is higher are generating less amount of waste of resources and are closer to implementation of lean manufacturing. It is also brought out that a successful lean manufacturing implementation program should address the machine aspect first of all, particularly in Indian context.


[1] Papadopoulau, T.C., Ozbayrak, M., 2006, "Leanness: experiences from the journey to date," Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, Vol. 16, pp. 784-807.

[2] Womack, J.P., Jones, D.T. and Roos, D., 1991, "The Machine that Changed the World, New York, Rawson Associates.

[3] Womack, J.P. and Jones, D.T., 1996, "Lean Thinking," London, Simon and Schuster.

[4] Ohno, T., 1996, "The Toyota Production System: Beyond Large Scale Production," New York, Productivity Press.

[5] Shingo, S., 1997, "A Study of the Toyota production system from an industrial engineering Viewpoint," New York, Productivity Press.

[6] Bateman, N., 2005, "Sustainability: the elusive element of process improvement," International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 25, pp. 261-276.

[7] Nagarur, N. and Azeem, A., 1999, "Impact of commonality and flexibility on manufacturing performance: a simulation study," International Journal of Production Economics, 60-61, pp.125-134.

[8] Blois, K. J., 1985, "Matching manufacturing technologies to industrial markets and strategies," Industrial Marketing Management, 14, pp. 43-47.

[9] Lei, D. and Goldhar, J. D., 1990, "Multiple niche competition: the strategic use of CIM technology," Manufacturing Review, 3 (3), pp. 195-206.

[10] Parthasarthy, R. and Sethi, S. P., 1992, "The impact of flexible automation on business strategy and organizational structure," Academy of Management Review, 17 (1), pp. 86-111.

[11] Boyer, K. K., Leong, G. K., Ward, P. T. and Krajewski, L. J., 1997, "Unlocking the potential of advanced manufacturing technologies," Journal of Operations Management, 15 (4), pp. 331-347.

[12] Lei, D., Hitt, M. A. and Goldhar, J. D., 1996, "Advanced manufacturing technology: organizational design and strategic flexibility," Organization Studies, 17 (3), pp. 501-523.

[13] Mohamed, Z. M., 1995, "Ramifications of tool magazine size on the makespan and routing flexibility of flexible manufacturing systems, "European Journal of Operational Research, 87, pp. 289-298.

[14] Burcher, P., Lee, G. and Sohal, A., 1999, "Lessons for implementing AMT," International Journal of Operations and Production Management, Vol. 19 (5/6), pp. 515-526.

[15] Boyer, K. K. and Leong, G. K., 1996, "Manufacturing flexibility at the plant level," Omega, International Journal of Management Science, vol. 24 (5), pp. 495-510.

[16] Peter Hines, Matthias Holweg and Nick Rich, 2004, "Learning to evolve: A review of contemporary lean thinking," International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 24, pp. 994-1011.

[17] Carpinetti, L. C. R., Gerolamo, M. C. and Dorta M., 2000, "A conceptual framework for deployment of strategy-related continuous improvement," The TQM Magazine, Vol. 12, pp. 340-349.

[18] Gilgeous, V. and Gilgeous, M., 1999, "A framework for manufacturing excellence," Journal of Manufacturing system, Vol. 10, pp. 33-44.

[19] Soriano-Meier, H. and Forrester, P. L., 2002, "A model for evaluating the degree of leanness of manufacturing firms," Integrated manufacturing systems, Vol. 13, pp. 104-109.

Gulshan Chauhan (a), T. P. Singh (b) and S. K. Sharma (c)

(a) Asstt. Professor, Deptt. of Mech. Engg., Haryana College of Tech. & Mgt., Kaithal, India.

(b) Professor, Mechanical Engineering Department, Thapar University, Patiala, Punjab, India

(c) Professor, Deptt. of Mech. Engg., National Institute of Technology, Kurukshetra, India
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Author:Chauhan, Gulshan; Singh, T.P.; Sharma, S.K.
Publication:International Journal of Applied Engineering Research
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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