Innovation Manufacturing Engineering Strategy Technology

Digitalization is not enough to implement agile production systems

Digitalization: is it always the answer?

Those who have been following us for a while will know what importance we give to the implementation of reconfigurable production systems. Below you can find some links to our posts on the subject:

In fact, flexibility is increasingly becoming an essential requirement for the mass customization of new products, the real goal of the 4th industrial revolution. Automation (3rd industrial revolution) has increased productivity, reduced costs and at the same time increased flexibility, especially thanks to the use of numerical controls and anthropomorphic robots.

However, the challenge remains more open than ever. Flexibility is no longer enough. Agility is needed.


What is an agile production system?


The “Agile” concept was born and made its way mostly in software engineering with the aim of speeding up and launching new products on the market that are increasingly personalized and in ever shorter times.

Similarly, by agile production system we mean a sufficiently flexible system capable of reconfiguring itself to the different market needs in terms of volumes and variety of products. The concept of flexibility does not include the concept of speed: how long does it take to reconfigure a production line? A flexible line can in fact take a long time due to the tooling and reprogramming of the automatic systems.

To be agile, therefore, a reconfigurable system must also be fast, that is, it must be able to adapt to new scenarios in minimal time.

In this sense, digitalization provides a great help. However, that’s not enough.


Digitalization is not enough


The digitalization of a production system means, among other things:

  • Connect production assets to ensure a continuous exchange and flow of information, in real time
  • Implement solutions that guarantee the exchange of this information at all company levels, both horizontally and vertically
  • Implement algorithms that help us make decisions quickly, if possible without the need for human intervention, then implement a greater level of autonomy

However, once the information is collected and the decisions made, how can the production system receive the information and reconfigure itself as autonomously as possible?


Designing agility


Digitalization is not the main answer.

Agile processes, therefore flexible and fast, can only be implemented by designing products and processes appropriately. For example, in the infographic that you can download below we have listed the fundamental concepts to be taken into consideration from the outset, that is, from the product design phase involving process experts, the supply chain, IT and more. It will also be necessary to have a long-term view of the product portfolio and the links with the processes associated with them. Easier said than done, given the speed with which they are now launched on the market.

Download our infographic on how to implement reconfigurable production systems

Finally, it is necessary to concretely design processes that are as agile as possible able to reconfigure themselves in an extremely short time thanks to smart set-ups.


Implementing smart setup


Smart set-ups are essential to ensure agile and versatile production systems. The set-ups involve the reconfiguration of machine tools and systems and can basically take place in two ways:

  • Manual set-ups: the operator takes care of manually replacing clamping fixtures and tools to reconfigure the machine to the next piece
  • Automatic set-ups: the system automatically reconfigures itself once the input information has been received.

It is clear that automatic set-ups are preferable to manual set-ups, however the latter guarantee a greater level of flexibility.

In summary: flexible systems require frequent set-up changes and agile systems require frequent and above all rapid changes. Take a look at a previous article where we have listed some tips to speed up set-ups: Set up time reduction in reconfigurable manufacturing systems”.


Reducing waiting time


Once smart set-ups have been implemented, it will be necessary to ensure that workpieces flow seamlessly based on the Takt Time.

This can be done guaranteeing:

  • robust processes, that is, there is no waste of time linked to non-quality (read here how to properly manage the production capability)
  • efficient production layouts: this can only be done by choosing a suitable layout for your products (volumes and production mix in particular)
  • absence of bottlenecks: this can be avoided, for example, by means of process simulation (read our article here Process simulation is an essential tool to optimize production systems)

Furthermore, it is necessary to choose which is the most efficient way to load and then transport the parts in the different production phases:


  • Manual: the operator carries out the operation
  • Automatic: a robot (or cobot) carries out the operation


  • Manual trolleys: an operator must be informed in real time on which parts to transport based on the different work priorities using kanban systems (better electronic kanban, or ekanban), often integrated with RTLS (Real Time Locating System) systems
  • AGV or conveyors: transport takes place automatically from one station to another

It is also clear in this case how it is necessary to find the best compromise between flexibility, agility, costs and resources.


Where to start?


In this short post we have highlighted the importance of implementing production systems that are not only flexible, but also agile. In both cases, digitalization is helping us, but it’s not enough. In fact, it will be necessary to implement smart fixtures capable of reducing times to a minimum and reconfiguring itself as autonomously as possible. Furthermore, waiting times during transport will have to be reduced or eliminated by optimizing production flows: it would make no sense to have very fast set-ups and an inefficient logistics system.

SkillS4i is offering a set of courses to help your organization in the development of agile production systems:

Nicola Accialini

Hi there! I am Nicola, founder and admin of SkillS4i. Aerospace Engineer, technology enthusiast and industrial expert. I live in Spain and I like travelling, cycling, hiking and reading.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x