Agile manufacturing is the ability to accomplish rapid changeover between the manufacture of different assemblies. Rapid changeover is defined as the ability to move from the assembly of one product to the assembly of a similar product with a minimum of change in tooling and software. Rapid changeover enables the production of small lot sizes, allowing for just-in-time production.
An enabling factor in becoming an agile manufacturer has been the development of manufacturing support technology that allows the marketers, the designers, and the production personnel to share a common database of parts and products. This allows the sharing of data on production capacities and problems — particularly where small initial problems may have larger downstream effects. In general, in manufacturing, the cost of correcting quality issues increases as the problem moves downstream, so it is cheaper to correct quality problems at the earliest possible point in the process.
Traditionally, the manufacturing industry has been producer-led. Even the supporting techniques — work study, stock control, and so on — were designed to reduce costs and help the manufacturer. The limited range of products available in the marketplace allowed such an approach — the customer had to wait to get what he/she was offered. However, the growth of service industries and the proliferation of self-service customer interfaces led to an increasingly sophisticated and capable customer base. Manufacturers could no longer assume that they could innovate and produce products exclusively at their own pace and quality levels.
The quality revolution of the last two decades of the past 20th century arose partly because the marketplace became increasingly global. The largest manufacturers cut across national and even international boundaries in ways that increased customer choice.
Increasingly, manufacturing industries recognized the need to quickly react or even anticipate changing market demands or lose share or even be forced out of the market altogether. The result was the adoption, in recent decades, of new forms of production including agile manufacturing.