Agile MFG

This was a watershed week for digital manufacturing in Boston.

On Monday, manufacturers from around the country gathered for Tulip’s Agile Manufacturing Summit, a conference examining how agile methodologies are transforming industry. The following day, Formlabs hosted the Digital Factory, a showcase of the absolute cutting edge of manufacturing technology.

If there was a theme to emerge between the two events, it was this: if manufacturers want to succeed in this era of accelerating change, they need to be agile.

But what does it mean to adopt agile methodologies in manufacturing? In other words, what is agile manufacturing?

Here’s what the experts present at both events had to say.

Tulip CEO Natan Linder describing agile MFG at Tulip's Agile MFG Summit
Tulip CEO Natan Linder describing agile MFG at Tulip’s Agile MFG Summit

1.) Agile in Two Words: Iterate Faster

All of the experts were in agreement on this point. Agile manufacturing means testing more often, changing before you need to, and versioning at an accelerated rate.

Jon Hirschtick, co-founder and CEO of game-changing design platform Onshape, summarized agile manufacturing in a way that resonated with the engineers in the room:

“Sample faster.”

Put differently, if you want to understand a system in greater detail, take data more often. Sample its output at a greater rate.

He elaborated with a metaphor. For Hirschtick, the difference between agile and traditional methods is like the difference between a long-range missile and a torpedo. For the long-range missile, you set the course, and if it’s off by a degree, it hits the wrong continent. Agile, on the other hand, is a like a torpedo that constantly adjusts and redirects based on input from its surroundings. It’s pinging and redirecting in real-time.

As another panelist summarized, “Course corrections are as important as setting the right trajectory from the start.”

Featured panelist Jon Hirschtick, Sandeep Bhadra, Leif Jentoft, Etienne Lacroix discuss “Trends Shaping the Agile MFG Space”

2.) Industry trends demand agile organizations

Manufacturing is changing at an unprecedented rate. Change is the new status quo.

Agile methods are now necessary to thrive in an industry characterized by short product life cycles, consumer demand for product customization, and expectations for immediate, accurate delivery.

It’s no longer enough for an organization to set a course with the expectation that it will be relevant in a year. Businesses and business models are simply not stable enough for that mindset. Without constant testing and adjusting, manufacturers won’t be able to keep up with fickle consumer demand. Worse, they won’t be flexible enough to change direction with deeper transformations in industry, world politics, and the economy.

As Dan Shapiro of Glowforge noted, “The real opportunity is delivering a smaller piece of value. Small projects that create less impact, more often, are more impactful than streamlining big projects.”

3.) Agile means keeping tech, business goals, and product in alignment

Both days, the panelists stressed how agile works best when it’s applied end-to-end.

This might seem obvious, but it’s worth reiterating. Agile is about making sure that R&D is aligned with a feasible, scalable product, and both are driven by a concrete go-to-market strategy.

This alignment, as Michelle Bockman of HP elaborated, is where a culture of continuous iteration really starts to pay dividends. For many organizations, there’s a risk that technology will get ahead of the market. Or that the excitement generated by a technological innovation will overshadow the fact that products need to be designed to serve a consumer and deliver value to an organization. Or that products need to be manufactured without sacrificing profitability and scalability.

An agile approach to testing and adjusting is crucial to supporting each leg of this three-legged stool. Organizations that iterate and problem solve more frequently are more likely to spot problems as the source. They’re more likely to design functional products that are easily qualified by customers. They’re also more likely to keep up with market developments as they unfold.

4.) Agile is a culture

Agile manufacturing means getting the whole organization to think in terms of iteration and change. As one panelist noted, “Agile is a culture. It’s a way of thinking. Evaluate where you are. Make changes. Move faster.”

But agile is about more than iteration. It’s also about how different individuals and job functions relate to one another.

This was a point made elegantly by MIT’s Matthew Kressy. He noted that the most important–yet least acknowledged–virtue in agile leaders in empathy.

Running a truly agile operation requires understanding the perspectives and contributions of everyone in an organization, from the c-suite to the shop floor. Most often, the people closest to problems have the best idea of how to solve them.

In manufacturing, this means empowering the engineers and operators who design and execute processes to own and improve them. It means that management should actively listen to the experiences of their employees, and take seriously their recommendations for solutions.

As Tulip CEO Natan Linder argued, agile manufacturing means organizational change from the bottom up. It means augmenting the workers on the shop floor, not replacing them.


5.) Agile is a return to the big picture

At both conferences, new technologies were on display. Those technologies were, presumably, one of the main reasons why so many people traveled to Boston.

But the panelists were quick to caution against being seduced by futuristic-seeming devices. Now, more than ever, vision–not just technology–is a prerequisite for excellence.

As Kressy noted, there are more tools available to manufacturers than ever before. He continued, “The question isn’t how do we get there. The tools we have are amazing. The question is, Where do we go?”  

In other words, as much as agile manufacturing is concerned with the incremental, it’s also about the big picture. All of the testing in the world won’t help if there’s no unifying vision to bring it all together.

Closing Thoughts

There was a real sense of excitement at the Agile Manufacturing Summit and the Digital Factory. At Tulip, we’re excited to see what manufacturers can build with this new agile mindset. We hope to see more of you in Boston for next year’s events!

Tulip’s manufacturing app platform helps manufacturers stay agile in every aspect of their operations. Curious how Tulip can help you test and iterate more often? Start a free trial today.