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What is a Flexible Manufacturing System?

By Ken Black
Updated May 17, 2024
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A flexible manufacturing system (FMS) is a type of industrial process that allows equipment to be used for more than one purpose, though they may be somewhat related. The equipment is often used to make customized parts, or make different parts for different models of product. This type of system may be changed by hand, but is more likely to be controlled by a computer, and changed through an entirely automated process.

The main goal of a flexible manufacturing system is to offer the speed needed to change with market conditions quickly, but not sacrifice any quality. Equipment that does this most effectively is likely designed for two or more purposes. While it may be possible to modify or retrofit some types of industrial equipment to do a job adequately, most FMS are designed for more than one purpose from the very outset.

Though the equipment for a flexible manufacturing system may initially be more expensive than traditional equipment, the overall goal is to reduce expenses. Manufacturers can save money by using the same equipment to essentially perform two or more functions. With traditional equipment, manufacturing two different products may not only require different pieces of equipment, but also two different lines and perhaps two different facilities. Therefore, this type of system may reduce overhead, despite higher start-up costs initially.

One of the most common examples of a flexible manufacturing system can be seen in the manufacturing of automobiles. Certain equipment is used to attach doors to a sedan. With just a few simple adjustments, that same line and equipment may be used to attach doors to a sport utility vehicle or some other type of vehicle. Often, the switchover can take place with very little disruption to the line, and may even happen during shifts.

In fact, the automobile industry can potentially save a substantial amount of money using a flexible manufacturing system. A report in 2004 indicated that Ford Motor Company saved approximately $2.5 billion US Dollars by putting flexible systems in at five manufacturing plants. The company estimated it can save at least half of the cost of manufacturing updated models using the systems.

In some cases, the machines may not only be used to produce or assemble different parts for different models, but to make customizations. These customizations, without a flexible system in place, would take much longer, and be much more expensive for the customer. Using machines with the ability to be flexible can not only speed the process up, but can improve customer satisfaction by bringing down the price.

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Discussion Comments

By Perdido — On Apr 27, 2012

@lighth0se33 – That makes good sense. I have no idea whether those companies use flexible manufacturing, either, but I do know that Toyota does, and they were one of the first to use it.

My husband works at a Toyota factory, and he frequently uses machines for several different purposes. He just has to change a few settings and move a few things around, but at least he doesn't have to have a totally different machine for everything he needs to do.

Toyota must be doing something right, because my husband has plenty of work to do, and he gets paid good money for doing it. I'm pretty sure the flexible manufacturing system is a part of why the business is doing so well.

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 26, 2012

I wonder if Ford's decision to implement flexible manufacturing systems back in 2004 helped them avoid a financial crisis. Though GM and Chrysler both received government bailout money in 2009, Ford didn't need any federal help.

I don't know if GM and Chrysler use flexible manufacturing or not, but this article does make me wonder if this might be one of Ford's advantages over them. It's a great form of smart money management, regardless of whether it had anything to do with them keeping from going bankrupt when the economy tanked.

By seag47 — On Apr 25, 2012

I would think that more and more automobile makers would be switching to flexible manufacturing technology, as would any other type of industry that could use it. Perhaps the furniture making industry could do so, as well.

Automobile and furniture factories are two of the few types of industries that remain in the U.S. My mother used to work for a shirt factory, an underwear factory, and a golf bag factory, but one by one, they moved overseas so they could save money on cheaper labor.

Perhaps flexible manufacturing systems could save a few of our remaining factories from going to other countries. Any significant amount of money that could be saved in the manufacturing process would likely result in more secure jobs for our citizens.

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