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Lean manufacturing is all about implementing measures into the work place to eliminate wastages. Flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) is all about designing a production system which can handle a variety of different products.

When a new product is planned, it involves a large amount of pre-production planning, up to 65% of the total lead time is spent at this stage. This will involve looking at sourcing material, design changes, product machining feasibility studies, market testing, even before a product is launched on to the market place.

The whole concept of FMS is to make significant in-roads in the pre-production stage to enable savings in cost and time, to generate quicker lead times and more growth. This is because the production system is designed to accept/adapt to product changes, which enable the time spent designing the new products to be reduced significantly.

True FMS systems are based upon layout out production areas in a manner which sees the CNC machines linked to central CAD/CAM machines to allow design changes to be reflected instantly in the end product.

FMS brings rewards in actual manufacture of products, as the process is designed for several products to be run on different machines within a manufacturing facility allowing for greater growth and stability with more diversity in output.

The suggested benefits of using FMS:

  • Rapid response to market change, re-acting to product mix, volume, and change.
  • Increased profitability as the business can enter into different markets.
  • FMS can lead directly to CAD/CAM & integrated manufacture.
  • Better quality products.
  • The ability to respond to assembly needs.
  • Shorter lead times.
  • Minimum Inventory
  • Manufacturing control.
  • High utilization of key equipment, with the ability to operate more hours per week.
  • Reduced tooling, simplified fixture design.
  • Reduced direct labour content.
  • Reduced fitting and assembly.
  • Real time control of components.
  • A new discipline is added to the planning process


Without a feasibility study it is impossible to identify if FMS is indeed applicable to a business. FMS involves a lot of careful planning, which if not properly implemented will result in an un-effective system being implemented. Having a well planned, long-term cost effective FMS system entails a lot of careful planning.

In the first instance, it will be down to either the production/operations/manufacturing director to present a case to the business board of directors outlining the need for your business to adopt FMS. The case needs to ensure that the FMS strategy will be an integral part of business strategy. In other words FMS will make your business produce cheaply, rapidly and have adaptability to future products. It is at this stage that the board of directors are fully aware of the potential implementation problems with FMS.

In order to be successful, FMS needs management appreciation of problems, implications and more importantly commitment. To design a truly FMS system, the business needs to use highly trained individuals to design the system and appreciate problems in adapting the process for future changes, breakdowns, tooling, etc.

The existing shopfloor machinery may need modifications to become a tool in FMS, in some instances there will be the need to replace machinery which the board of directors may view as unnecessary.

Installing an FMS system is often mistakenly viewed as being the responsibility of the machine manufacturer. Manufacturing businesses often make the mistake that it is down to machine manufacturer to iron out their problems, but it is often the case that businesses only specify a fraction of what they actually want the machines to achieve. Specify your targets for the manufacturer to achieve in terms of installing machines to reduce WIP, increasing quality, costs, etc. Clear plans need to be set out detailing the objectives of FMS.

What needs to be done? 

  • FMS USER - Pre-planning, fixture design, product design, tooling requirements
  • MACHINE MANUFACTURER - Supplying correct machine with the correct tooling and handling capabilities.
  • FMS USER & MACHINE MANUFACTURER - Ensure correct specification machines used. System integration to production change, programming and testing of software.

Difficult areas in software implementation within the FMS includes

  • Linking production control software with engineering software.
  • Linking the programming computers with production machines.
  • Forming links between machines, and other machines for example when components are in random sequences in the production cycle.
  • Writing functional specifications for all software.
  • Downloading the programs onto the machines and testing the software.

Controls and software have been a major cause of complaint about FMS, it is important that the software supplier knows what the software is intended to be used for, and fully tests the software prior to implementation.

Other linkages will obviously include WIP detection software which shows where the batches on the shopfloor physically are in relation to fulfilling customer orders.

Immediate problems which arise in the implementation of an FMS system include the estimation of tooling management, operator training, and the training of the FMS system designers to ensure a system is designed properly.

The business has to accept the implications of FMS in the sense that using multi-tooling and flexible manpower systems will mean that operators will be trained to use a variety of different machines as opposed to a single machine whilst at work.

FMS brings its own implications on work procedures, gone are the days that a product has to be machined on a specific machine, FMS should mean that the work is fed to the resource that has the available capability rather than the one which it is intended to run on.

The costs of having to train operators to use several machinery and understand the new flexible production system may be off putting.

FMS does involve high lead in costs and long lead times, the timescales will undoubtedly change as the FMS designers become more and more aware of potential changes to the system. To overcome this it could be worthwhile setting up and allowing an FMS team to train themselves in new techniques, the cost would be minimal in comparison to allowing someone with half an inkling to go out and buy new machinery, whereas the project team could use knowledge and expertise gained over a 12month training period to make the value judgments required in FMS.

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(c)  Est 08/00 - Last Updated 28/05//2001