Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do the day after tomorrow.
–Mark Twain (also attributed to Oscar Wilde)
We live in such a “faster is better” world that sometimes we overlook the value of putting things off. But as an article on supply chain management points out, in some manufacturing supply chain scenarios, postponement actually makes good business sense.
The article cites the well-known case from Hewlett Packard’s printer business, where the European division was producing many versions of a printer model in order to meet the different electrical requirements of all the countries they served. Then someone had a brilliant idea: Why rush to build the whole printer? Why not postpone installing the electrical components further downstream?
What resulted was a design change such that printers were redesigned with a modular power system to be installed closer to the point of sale. This allowed distributors to stock just the “base” printers and the appropriate power modules for their region.
Voila! Manufacturing was simplified, inventory was reduced and costs went down.
Postponement is a strategy that can also be used in product design. Rapidly changing technology can be a problem in product development—a material or technology can become outdated by the time the product is launched.
To avoid this, IBM built postponement into some of their design processes by delaying key decisions where fast-changing technologies are involved. Essentially, engineers leave a placeholder in their designs so they can swap in the best available technology later in the development process.
Of course, if you are to adopt this type of strategy, then you will need a pretty adaptable, flexible platform to manage your manufacturing and extended supply chain operations.
Distributing across Geography vs. Time
Manufacturers are used to the challenges of distributing operations over geographical distances. It’s part of the modern global manufacturing environment. Manufacturing Transformation has written extensively about how Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) systems are essential enablers of distributed manufacturing because they provide the integration and coordination necessary for handling the supply chain complexities that result.
I would argue that in the same way, a MOM can be an enabler for distributing processes over time, as well as geography. In many ways, the challenges are the same.
Imagine you want to delay product assembly for as long as possible, based on a new technology that is still being refined. As a manufacturer, you need strong visibility and agile control of your supply chain, since less is being done in the main factory and more is being done in the distribution network.
Synchronizing parts production and shipping to the right distributors is no small task. And then, when demand changes or there are disruptions in the supply chain, you need the ability to quickly see the problem and reroute orders and supplies as often as needed. These are exactly the tasks that a MOM solution was made for. In fact, in terms of supply chain management, this type of production postponement looks a lot like just-in-time manufacturing, where manufacturing operations management solutions are providing tight synchronization between supply and production.
In a different way, these types of solutions can enable delayed design decisions. Imagine a manufacturer with end-to-end digital systems, where digital modeling applications (PLM, CAD, etc.) is tightly integrated with manufacturing planning and execution systems. As long as the missing component can be described by its characteristics in the digital model, planning and execution development can proceed as if the design were finished.
In a traditional manufacturing environment, making a last minute decision about a component—and coordinating the resulting material flows and processes—would likely be disruptive. But in a digital environment, this kind of agility is all in a day’s work.
Ironically, it seems digital manufacturing systems are just as good at delaying decisions as they are at accelerating them!
Now I just need to research that really came up with that famous line above: Twain or Wilde? Maybe I’ll look into it tomorrow.
If you liked this article, here are others you might also find interesting:
- How Packaging and Shipping Requirements are Evolving with Today’s Global Supply Chain
- Taking Lean to the Supply Chain
- Achieving Operational Agility: Critical Tools for Manufacturers