Only the Agile Survive
Supply chain management may make for leaner manufacturing, but there is also a premium on agility. Agile manufacturers recognize that information technology and globalization have dramatically quickened the rate at which new products must be innovated and brought to market. In such a rapidly shifting marketplace, it's best to operate not as a vertically integrated giant but rather as part of a loose confederation of affiliates that form and reform relationships depending on changing customer needs. In the 1990s, NSF set up three institutesat the University of Illinois, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and the University of Texas at Arlingtonto study issues raised by agile manufacturing.
"Agile manufacturing takes on a slightly different definition depending on whom you talk to," says Robert Graves, who is a professor in the Decision Sciences and Engineering Systems department at RPI as well as director of the Electronics Agile Manufacturing Research Institute, which studies issues of agile manufacturing as they apply to the electronics industry. "Here in electronics we look at the idea of distributed manufacturing."
In the distributed manufacturing model, an enterprise consists of a core equipment manufacturer that produces the product and is supported by supply chains of materials manufacturers and services. As an exercise, Graves and his colleagues at RPI set up their own agile company to redesign a circuit board used in an Army walkie-talkie. Once team members finished the product's design, they looked for companies that could supply the parts. But parts listed in catalogs weren't always available or, if they were, might not have been available quickly.
So the team redesigned their circuit board to include other, more readily available parts. This, and the search for new suppliers, took excessive time and required extra resourcescircumstances that emulated the realities of traditional design and manufacturing. But the time wasn't wasted, since the whole point was to identify common manufacturing obstacles and devise ways for the system to become more agile.
In the end, the RPI researchers saw that they could streamline the system by using computers and networks to handle the negotiations between suppliers and designers. The researchers developed software that takes a circuit board design, works out all possible, functionally equivalent variants, and sends out "agents"self-sufficient computer programsto the computers of the various parts suppliers. These automated agents carry a "shopping" list of the physical characteristics of some sub-system of the board. List in hand, each automated agent essentially roots around in the supplier's computers, making note of such things as how much each supplier would charge for the components on the list and how quickly the supplier can deliver. The agents then carry the information about pricing and availability back to the designer's computer, which may use the new data to further modify the design and send out yet more agents.
RPI researchers using this new system cut the circuit board design process from nine months to a mere two weeks. In 1999, the group spun off a company called ve-design.com to market their newly developed agile system.