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What Are the Differences Between Lean and Agile Manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing relies on an assembly line.
Lean manufacturing relies to a large degree on employees who physically construct a part or group of parts.
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  • Written By: Amy Rodriguez
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2014
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There are many differences between lean and agile manufacturing, including production style, inventory levels, and customization abilities. A lean manufacturing technique is based on the mass assembly line strategy with a mixture of employees and machines creating products from the smallest components to the larger outside assemblies. In contrast, agile manufacturing depends mainly on production automation and modular pieces to form a desired product.

One main difference between lean and agile manufacturing is production configuration. Lean manufacturing relies heavily on employees to physically construct a part or group of parts; that product portion is passed to another employee for attachment of additional components. Automated machines may be added along the employee assembly line for more precise manufacturing, such as aligning electronic components on a printed circuit board (PCB).

By comparison, agile manufacturing uses automation as its main production strategy. The number of employees is reduced, to save on labor costs; the workers that remain along the production line are normally present to adjust or repair the robotic machines when necessary, rather than to physically create a product. As a result, the manufacturing line is efficient and cost effective for the business and consumers.

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Inventory levels vary greatly between these two styles of manufacturing. Lean manufacturing requires numerous small parts, from washers to screws, to construct a product; the abundance of various parts contributes to high inventory storage fees. In contrast, agile manufacturing depends on a modular part construction. This standardized part structure allows different products to be made with the same few modules held in inventory which contributes to lower supply levels.

Lean and agile manufacturing processes also differ in terms of how easily products can be customized under each system. Changing any part of a product in lean production to customize its operation or appearance requires a redesign of the internal and external parts, as well as generating prototypes to verify functionality. Customized products are extremely expensive due to the high costs of this research and design. Additionally, the production line is interrupted while updating it to produce the customized product, which negatively impacts normal manufacturing times and costs.

In contrast, agile production can accommodate customized product orders since the modular construction can be altered quickly. The production line simply needs to adapt or add new modules to the existing product. As a result, the consumer can acquire a competitively priced custom product without impeding the normal business production line. Many consumers will seek out products from companies that can specialize in this manner. Both lean and agile manufacturing processes can satisfy customer needs, but with a direct effect on final product cost.

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